Nov 30, 2009

More on the Educational Value of Travel

Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” This high praise, coming from one of America’s most famous authors, perfectly illustrates the power of travel.

Last week, we covered a few of the reasons that students should consider travel alongside traditional extracurricular activities as a means towards personal education, as well as talked about some of the ways that travel could parallel these activities. One unmentioned comparison is the counter-intuitive notion that travel could provide a local benefit similar to community-service. While it is true that an individual can directly improve the lives of community members by staying at home and volunteering, insights gained through travel could hold similar potential. Imagine relating an experience with people from your community in such a fashion that those who listen will connect to the people you talk about without even meeting them. Or how about presenting a cultural experience that broadened your own point of view in hopes of repeating the effect locally? The potential, like most extracurricular activities, relies on the individual and their ambition for self-directed learning.

For the student looking to set their résumé apart from all the others, travel could provide the necessary boost to open even the most prestigious of doors. Consider a traditional extracurricular activity, like interning at a locally distributed paper as a means towards building some journalism credibility. Now consider putting down on your résumé that you interned at that locally distributed newspaper in a foreign country and had to perfect a second-language to do it. To have such a unique insight into the world of journalism is going to land you far more consideration than staying at home for a similar internship.

As you weigh the paths available to you in the pursuit of self-betterment, consider travel, in all its many forms, one of several options. The exploration of foreign places is important for anyone seeking a well-rounded understanding of the world they occupy. We end this week’s blog the same way in which it began; with a quote from author Mark Twain--“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Nov 23, 2009

The Educational Value of Travel

Taking the opportunity to learn in a fresh, new environment can engage even the most reluctant learner out there. And while some top-tier students choose to commit their free time to resume-builders like community service and sports teams, others find more value in exploring some place new. That’s not to say there isn’t tremendous merit in serving the community or leading a team- undoubtedly, both offer the potential for incredible experiences in and of themselves. But resources permitting, some students may benefit more from simply traveling.

For example, there has been plenty of talk on this blog about the improvement of learning through the diversification of the learning experience and multimodal teaching methods, but the total physical immersion of travel takes this idea to a whole new level. For example, all of the senses are engaged when a traveler simply walks down a foreign street--they can see the architecture, hear the language, and smell the local food. This creates an unparalleled number of connections in the brain, enhancing learning like nothing else can.

Additionally, one should never forget the educational applications that travel can bring to specific academic subjects. This is part of the reason why field trips are so awesome. What better way is there to learn about the history of the Roman Empire than to actually touch a part of the Coliseum? Or, one could dive into the art of drama by attending a Shakespearean production in the reconstructed Globe Theater of London. Or how about picking up a foreign language by using it non-stop in its country of origin? Of course, you don’t necessarily need to leave the country--think of the benefits of learning about the American Government by spending a week in Washington D.C., or the effects of volcanoes in Hawaii, or marine biology along the California coast?

Some see travel as a mere luxury. This is certainly true in some cases--for example, sitting on the beach all day while you stare at the water and hold a cold beverage is not exactly academically rigorous (even if your goal is to examine the tides!). But if you concentrate on gathering knowledge, and head off somewhere with a sense of discovery and an eagerness to learn, travel could be the best teacher you ever have.

Nov 20, 2009

Re-Examining Learning Styles

We’ve always been huge proponents of finding your own learning style- we’ve recommended it as a means towards better test results, choosing the right class and teacher, and several other applications. But what does this term really mean?

The word “style” connotes a predisposition towards a particular presentation medium, when in fact, finding the perfect way to learn could change as quickly as what you would like to have for dinner. Learning is an extremely complex amalgamation of connecting thoughts and memory through hundreds of billions of nerve cells inside your head. What works once won’t necessarily work again in exactly the same way. Emotions, physical well-being, and other factors all contribute to how we learn, and blanket assumptions on the best approach to material are not always correct.

For example, it is possible that the material itself could determine the best method for learning. For example, some may find Math learning to be a visual process, while History could be more suited to an auditory presentation.

While tacking down the perfect method for learning varies so widely, the evidence at hand does support the utilization of numerous different presentation models. More variety equates to better engagement and retention.

As we learn and move through life, our brain is constantly re-shaping itself to adapt to the needs that we place upon it. The more we use certain connection inside the brain, the stronger they become. The inverse of this is also true, with old and unused connections fading in time. This could help back up any predispositions you may have towards learning preference- if you are used to using a certain sensory input (hearing, for example) to learn, it would make sense to fall-back to that format if you are struggling with a particular subject.

Additionally, it is important not to eschew other methods for learning- you may uncover a treasure trove of connections you didn’t even know was there!

Nov 10, 2009

Millennial Education

In case you hadn’t noticed, marketing companies have a name for those of us born between 1980 and 1995 – Millennials. Individuals between the ages of 29 and 14 have been dubbed as the generation that was born with a monitor and keyboard already latched to their faces and fingers, completely unaware of a world without cell phones or the Internet, a generation that is just now realizing it’s power- not just to consume, but to change the world.

The generation is, however, very good at consuming. Millennials can purportedly multitask their way to consuming 20 hours worth of media in a scant 7 hours per day. Other superpowers include the ability to scrutinize, evaluate, and customize experiences to suit particular needs, wants, and abilities. This specialized selectivity encompasses the opinions of peers, who play an important part of decision-making.

It is expectations such as these that compose a broad conglomeration of ideals that educators are basing new proposals for teaching techniques, methodology, and technologies. It is the reason we now have educational resources like online class environments, SmartBoards, and media-rich homework help sites like HippoCampus. They are advances in the name of making learning interesting, relevant, and above all, effective.

But one of the most critical aspects of the Millennial Generation is its size, with some sources weighing it in at over 60 million strong. This is just another indicator of greater and greater population growth, one aspect that education continues to grapple with.

The question remains- how does a society teach an ever-expanding population with expanding needs and requirements? The “solution” of mass-produced education is one that many believe we are already leaning towards.

But, there are some new ways around that bleak proposal. Adaptive learning, for example, employs novel data-mining techniques to find the best approach for a student to take towards learning material. If, for example, the student displays adequate competence in a particular topic, they will be sped on to the next topic, maintaining engagement. Or, if a student has problems with a particular topic, they can try multiple types of material presentation in an effort to find one that suits their particular learning style, such as video instead of a reading exercise.

Another exciting idea is the use of artificial intelligence to teach a class. Imagine never crashing a course to get the best teacher- just click and select. Oh, and don’t forget to leave a comment and rating so your friends know whether or not to sign up.

Nov 2, 2009

De-structure Yourself

Intelligence is anything but monotone, and we’ve tried to cover more than a few angles of its multi-faceted nature. For example, one way of measuring intelligence is to look at the number of connections a brain can make, or the “plasticity” of a brain. Plasticity is highest when we are very young, which helps us learn language and social norms quite quickly. It should come as no surprise then that one of the most basic of childhood pursuits- playtime- is also a major contributing factor to intelligence.

It has been well documented that unstructured playtime is very important in the development of a myriad of characteristics, including social skills and stress relief. But it is also critical in the development of problem-solving skills and creativity. When kids have the freedom to play outside the constraints of school, parents, or some other pre-ordained organization, they end up finding their own activities and solutions, many of which can be more rewarding than anything produced outside their own mind.

One particularly interesting aspect of the data available is the importance of rambunctious faux fighting, which turns out to be one of the most important types of imaginative playtime- a callback to our more primitive roots. In the modern world we’ve made for ourselves, it’s important to remember just how hard-wired these basics can be.

The idea of unstructured play inevitably comes back to the concept of a fixed mindset and growth mindset. When someone is used to relying on their own brain to find a solution (for example, to boredom), they won’t shy away from finding their own solution when they are confronted with another type of problem. Instead of insurmountable obstacles, the brain sees challenges and imaginative ways around them.

While the subjects observed in these studies were children, it’s still important to schedule in some unstructured time as adults too. Creativity is always something adults complain about losing as they gain the wisdom of years and experience- perhaps they could get some of it back if they only tried. Who knows- they might even learn something.