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Learning By Doing 2.0

John Black and his students are leaders in exploring technology that makes use of grounded cognition
John Black  and his students  are leaders  in exploring  technology that makes use of grounded cognition

By Joe Levine

Remember physics in junior high school, and those boring experiments with marbles that were supposed to teach you about concepts such as potential energy and kinetic energy? Well, physical science classes look a lot different nowadays, even in the fifth grade. To learn about potential and kinetic energy, students can go online to watch animations of falling rhinoceroses and speeding roller coasters. With a mouse-click, they can change the roller coaster’s speed and the steepness of the track incline. When they make those changes, the program provides a readout of corresponding changes in energy expenditure.

John Black has shown in many studies that students who engage with such simulations develop a better conceptual understanding than peers who learn by more traditional methods. For Black, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education and Chair of TC’s Department of Human Development, the explanation isn’t simply that such presentations are more fun or that kids enjoy using cool technology. Rather, Black believes that such programs enhance learning because they create powerful perceptual experiences and promote what he calls grounded or embodied cognition.

According to the guiding paradigm in TC’s Cognitive Studies in Education program (which Black directs), and particularly in the Intelligent Technologies concentration, full understanding depends to a large degree on the learner’s ability to create both a mental and a perceptual simulation of a concept or process. Studies have shown, for example, that for children reading a story about farming, manipulating actual farm objects leads to better retention of the story.

As digital technology has become more sophisticated, it has provided increasingly powerful forms of grounded cognition. The hierarchy of effectiveness, from least to most, is watch, do, feel, move. Watching a simulation is great, but becoming a participant by actually feeling or performing the activity in question reinforces underlying concepts. In a study last year, for example, Black and TC Instructional Technology and Media doctoral student Insook Han found that adding “force feedback,” or weighted resistance, to a simulation further increased learning. Students worked with a program that simulated the movement of interacting gears. To increase the output force of the gears, the students had to pull harder on a joystick, or lever.

The newest and most exciting area of inquiry is technology that responds to human movement. In 2002 the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, envisioned precisely such a gizmo: a three-dimensional computer interface that the user controls with hand gestures. Since then, gaming technology that responds to movement, like Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3, has come online. Tools such as the iPad Touch and Microsoft Kinect respond to smaller movements.

Why is movement important? A growing field, led by experts such as TC’s Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology and Education, posits that physical gesture corresponds with and can enhance different kinds of thought processes. For example, Tversky and others have shown that when people are solving problems, they make characteristic gestures that reveal underlying mental imagery. And when people watch others engage in a specific activity, the neurons activated in their brains are the same ones that are employed in that activity.

Technology that responds to gesture can therefore promote learning. In a study presented in November 2010 at the Psychonomic Society Conference, Black and Tversky, along with TC Cognitive Studies doctoral student Ayelet Siegel, demonstrated that when children solved arithmetic problems that had simple, defined answers, they used tapping, pointing and beating gestures that were best supported by use of a traditional computer mouse. But when the children performed a “continuous task,” such as estimating where a specific number would fall on a number line running from 0 to 100, they made smooth, continuous hand gestures such as sweeping, arcing and dragging, which were best approximated by running their fingers across a touch pad.

Cameron Fadjo, a Research Associate with TC’s Institute for Learning Technologies, and Black have shown that movement can turn young learners into programmers of on-screen or tangible avatars—which in turn can enhance their understanding of concepts in subjects such as physics. In another study conducted last year through the Institute, which Black also directs, Black and three students—Carol Lu, Seokmin Kang and Douglas Huang—enabled elementary school students in TC’s Harlem Ivy After-School Network to build and program LEGO robots. The robots performed specific activities, such as striking balls of varying size and weight with different degrees of force, in response to signals of touch, light and sound.

As a result of observing how far and fast the balls traveled, all the elementary school students demonstrated an improved understanding of the principles governing the relationship between force and mass. But a subgroup of students who were also asked to initially imagine themselves as the robots, and to move their own bodies in the ways that they wanted the robots to perform, scored best on a test of conceptual understanding given after completion of the unit of study.

Then again, when it comes to grounded cognition, it may be that imagination tops the hierarchy. In a recent project, Black and TC student Saadia Khan showed that when children interact with a simulated historical event by controlling an avatar in the virtual world called Second Life, they learn that history much better than students who merely read about it.

When Black sums up the importance of technology in education, he often talks about the opportunity to connect with students whose potential isn’t being tapped—and the concurrent danger that educators will be led down the primrose path. Adapt a video game successfully to the classroom, and you’ve got a built-in draw for kids who don’t necessarily take to books and paper. Get seduced by flashy technology in which the movements and interaction do not match the conceptual structure of what you want the students to learn, and not only will you fail to promote learning, but you may even make things worse.

“There’s a lot of so-called educational technology out there, but while the technology is very advanced, it often reflects very little knowledge of education,” he says. “And when you bring in technology without reference to quality research about how learning really occurs, you’re dooming yourself to failure. Using hands-on activities that are conceptually congruent with what is being learned can improve that learning, and adding simulations that help students also imagine and manipulate those experiences can improve learning even more. This approach improves memory for what is being learned, but even more important, it improves the flexible ability to use what was learned to solve problems.”

Published Wednesday, May. 2, 2012