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The Genius in All of Us
June 7, 2010 - 9:23pm

I'm convinced that technology will provide the bridge between learning theory and teaching practice in higher ed. The gap between what we know and what we can actually accomplish is always large. For instance, we know that the best learning takes place in a seminar setting, with students and teachers sitting around a table and constructing knowledge through conversation, dialogue, and opportunities for active learning. The problem is that the resources do not exist to turn every class into a seminar, as the seminar method does not scale. Instead, we have lecture courses. When I first started teaching at WVU my intro to sociology class had about 200 students. It was my efforts to use technology in these courses (in 1998) that first got me interested in learning technology.

Which bring me to David Shenk's new book: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong. Shenk's basic argument is that we need to leave behind the "nature vs. nurture" debate, and begin to see achievement as a function of genes times environment. Genetics and experience cannot be separated when it comes to understanding or predicting someone's life path.

Shenk dissects and demolishes the notion that some people are "born geniuses" through a careful examination of the biographies of a number of high achievers. From Yo-Yo Ma to Michael Jordan, the common thread that runs through each high achiever is passionate and directed practice and preparation. Someone may be pre-disposed to love art or writing or running, by without the thousands of hours of intense practice (and a social and familial situation that supports this preparation), "genius" will never emerge. This book is a good companion piece to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story Of Success, covering much of the same academic research but with greater attention paid to the role of genetics.

Technology can be a tool we use to assist learners in getting the necessary practice they need to become high achievers. Using Shenk's framework on success, we can think of 3 specific ways that technology can be utilized:

1. Support: Shenk stresses that everyone is capable of excelling in any given task, as long as "failure" is not seen as a mark of inadequacy but rather as an opportunity for learning. The bar should be set high, with the assumption that everyone can achieve the goal if they receive the proper support. Self-paced Web-based tutoring modules and computer graded formative assessments are one way to provide learners with support. Some students will take longer to work through the materials, and will need to participate in learning units over-and-over again. Other learners will need to work through assessments multiple times before they can demonstrate mastery of topics. The LMS, Web-based modules, and testing platforms provide scalable and affordable systems to allow this type of support for learning.

2. Repetition and Practice: Understanding that none of us have any in-born shortcuts to learning can help us see the need for repetition and practice. Lecture capture systems allow students to review difficult concepts multiple times. Competency quizzes allow for the concepts to be reinforced through low-stakes quizzing. We should not set an artificial limit on the frequency that learners can interact with the materials. We should expect that everyone will reach a high level, and provide opportunities for practice and repetition that will allow them to reach this goal.

3. Flexibility: Our genes and experiences predispose us to favor certain tasks over others. We are all creative people, we just express our creativity differently. One way we can get the best out of our students is to provide a number of ways they can meet our educational and learning goals. Writing a paper or giving a presentation is not the only method to demonstrate knowledge and skills (nor is taking a multiple choice exam!). Competency in writing might be one of our learning outcomes, but students who are drawn to media projects can demonstrate this skill (by writing a script), while working in a medium that plays to their strengths and passions.

Too often we assume that some of our students are "naturals" and others are just not cut-out for our disciplines. These assumptions can influence how we design our courses and asses our students. I hope that The Genius in All of Us is widely read and discussed among educators, and that all of us take a hard look at our own assumptions.

What are you reading?


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