Our goal should be to create a student who moves up the knowledge axis, along an “excelsior spiral that climbs the tree of knowledge” – Barry Kort
Rob & Chris’ debate about whether learning styles exist (or not) touches upon a subtle, but important point. Forcing a student to come out of their comfort zone is important in the educational journey, in fact, there is likely a strong interplay between emotions & learning. Many have attempted to identify the healthy amount of discomfort that’s necessary in the learning process, but I thought this paper by a group from M.I.T. highlighted some very important concepts.
In an attempt to engineer a computer application that could identify a student’s emotions, Kort highlights some theoretical concepts that are highly adaptable to medical education & other STEM courses. The underlying principle of this paper is that there is a necessary cycle in learning that requires making mistakes, evaluating/reflecting about what went wrong, deconstructing false beliefs, discovering a potential solution, and ultimately repeating the cycle until the problem is solved.
Dr. Kort begins with the establishment of a static model that plots Positive/Negative emotions on the horizontal axis against Learning/Unlearning on the vertical axis. (below).
Let’s briefly review this model and how it applies to medical trainees:
Students will often begin in the upper quadrants (I or II) – with a clinical question, interest, or endeavor. This could be the result of an interesting patient, failed resuscitation, missed questions during a “pimping session” or whatever – but something that sparked an interest. Quadrant III often is reached during a period of research or self-reflection. During this time, the learner will likely identify knowledge gaps or misconceptions that currently exist. The reflection, deconstruction, & unlearning process that ensues is likely the most critical.
After a period of failure, the learner will eventually progress to Quadrant IV where a new potential answer is identified, or a true solution is realized or understood. Ultimately, the idea is that the student should traverse a series of both positive and negative emotions on their path to truly understanding the answer to their question.
So where does the educator exist within this process?
The authors contend that the instructors role is to help the student continue their path around the loop, as well as teaching them how to propel themselves especially after a setback.
The last variable to consider is time, which can be added as a third axis (z-axis). By incorporating time, the authors define the educator’s role as that of a mentor, where the student progresses in an orbital fashion along an, “excelsior spiral that climbs the tree of knowledge.” Essentially, building their knowledge base as they travel through this cycle of failure and success.
Some key pearls to take away from this paper include:
- Learning is an active process that incorporates some degree of struggle.
- Expert teachers are very adept at recognizing and addressing the emotional state of learners, and even more importantly – are able to effectively guide them through this learning cycle again and again.
- Much of this theory focuses on the individual learner, however it is possible to incorporate these concepts into a lecture if necessary – see, “Make Your Audience the Hero”
Teachers who incorporate the cycle of learning and unlearning into the educational constructs of their classroom are (in my opinion) more effective educators.
Finally, there is something important about what this journey teaches students outside of the intended lesson plan, something that we’ll address next time – the value of GRIT.
Some parting questions to the educators out there:
- Do you think some form of negative emotion is important to the learning process?
- Is there actually value in allowing students to struggle?
Leave your thoughts below!
References [Free full text]
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology Affective Computing Lab
- Kort B, Reilly R, Picard RW. An Affective Model of the Interplay Between Emotions and Learning.
Download Paper Here.
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