In my role as producer of the Learning Capacity podcast, I get to talk to many interesting people from around the world.
Occasionally, the tables get turned, and the people I meet start to ask me more questions than I ask them.
Nick Kenny, hosts a program on Sydney based community station Northside Radio, FM99.3. It’s named A Fair Call and is a political commentary and current affairs talk show. He invited me to join him on the program to discuss what learning capacity is, what I thought about current developments in the education system in Australia, and why I thought reading is so important.
He wasn’t afraid of asking tough questions, and it made for a very enjoyable discussion. The program was recorded, and I’m pleased to add it to the growing list of interviews that make up the Learning Capacity podcast.
Listen to the discussion:
People & organisations mentioned
- Peter Carabi
- Ron Ritchhart
- Dr Steve Miller
- Professor John Hattie
- Devon Barnes
- Northside Radio, FM 99.3
- Lindfield Speech Pathology & Learning Centre
- What Doesn't Work in Education by John Hattie
- What Works Best in Education by John Hattie
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 49 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
FM99.3 presenter Nick Kenny interviews Colin Klupiec on Learning Capacity, Education & Reading.
Nick: Have you ever heard of the word neuroplasticity? Well, if you're like me, you probably associate it with Lumosity, those video games that are meant to boost your mental capacity. If you have heard of it and you can't remember what it means, well, this segment is for you.
I'm joined by Colin Klupiec. He's gone from strength to strength in the education sector since 1998. He hosts a podcast called Learning Capacity. It's available on SoundCloud, and he's spoken to some of the leading experts in education worldwide. Colin, thanks for joining us.
Colin: It's a great pleasure to be here, Nick.
Nick: Colin, there's a number of things I'd like to cover, but first let's speak about you. What's learning capacity?
Colin: Well, it's an interesting idea, isn't it? In education we often talk about content or what the students know, or how much content they've covered from their textbooks But we don't often talk a lot about someone's ability to actually learn. How ready is their brain to actually learn, and are they ready and receptive to learn?
And capacity or a person's capacity to learn is about those things. Am I actually ready to be exposed to new things? And when those new things are exposed to me, what will I do with them and how will I react? So that's really the essence of capacity. In one sense it's quite complicated once you look at how the brain starts to work with new things, but on another level it's really quite simple, "Am I prepared to learn?"
Nick: When you say, "prepared to learn", the number one benchmark that we've got is just simply age. A child hits five, boom, they're ready to go.
Colin: Yeah, that's a fairly contentious issue depending on what country you're in. Some countries start their children a little bit later. Some countries like to start their children a little bit earlier. If you've ever been to an early learning center like a preschool, you'll see that they've really tried very hard to include curriculums now for well, basically kids who're just being left there to be minded during the day.
You could be as young as 18 months to 2 years old and you could be faced with a curriculum from early learning teachers. Now, on one level I think that sounds really great, but on another level I'm just wondering, what was I doing when I was two years old? I think I was just naturally discovering the world.
So age is probably one of the most hotly debated topics now, and the thing that you'll hear about the most, I think, is the fact that we batch students or we batch children. So we put them together based on the year that they were born.
Another thing that you will hear quite commonly is their date of manufacture, in other words their birth date, and that's the common thing that makes them capable or able to learn. And people are questioning that now. "Should I be placed in this particular stage just because of how old I am?"
Nick: What do you think the alternatives are though?
Colin: Well, I've worked in a school in Sydney, a very well-to-do private school which introduced vertical learning in it's tutor groups, so the pastoral care groups. So instead of having just a group of year 9 students or a group of year 10 students, that you see a few times a week for "pastoral care", which is where you look after the things about school that aren't necessarily covered in class, they tried going to a vertical system and that had it's ups and downs. So you've got year 12 students in the same room as year 7 students, but it's not really curriculum-based.
The alternative is to say, "Well, let's put students together based on what we think they know or are capable of with respect to the curriculum." Now that throws up all sorts of very, very difficult issues like scheduling. "Timetabling" is what we would call it here.
First of all, how do I figure out who is at what level, and then once I've figured that out, how do I work out the schedule? And because we've been doing it the other way for the last, I don't know 50, 60, 70 years, it's almost as if the alternative is just too hard. We can't think about that.
Nick: And politically speaking it must be difficult, especially at a younger age, to say to a parent, "We want to benchmark your child."
Colin: Again that throws up all sorts of ideas of, "Well, you mean you're going to test my child? You mean you're going to put my child in front of a standardised test, or school-developed tests, or your own observation? And then well, who's developing the tests? Who's marking them?
And on what basis are we then making those professional judgments?" And I can understand why parents would get a little bit edgy about that. Once again, it's a very difficult situation to try and get any sort of clarity or consistency on.
I think coming back to your point on what are the alternatives, I think the alternatives lie effectively outside of what we might call the normal system. And there are some schools around the world that are attempting to do that
Nick: Okay. I remember we had a chat a few weeks ago. If you're just joining us, listener, I'm speaking with Colin Klupiec. He runs a podcast called Learning Capacity, and it's a very critical look at education, both here and abroad. And Colin and I were speaking a few weeks ago about the differences between the Australian education system and overseas, and you mentioned the number of hours that...I think it was German students?
Nick: The number of hours that a German student sits in front of a teacher are significantly less than that of an Australian student, but the outcomes consistently are superior.
Colin: Well, that was based on the PISA test, which is the international benchmark. And the numbers in general suggest that European students are in front of teachers less frequently or for less hours. Look, again it's hard to know how that's measured. Whether that's based on pure class time or how they measure the length of their school day. But by and large, on an hourly perspective, they are there less
Look, I remember this from...I have German relatives, my heritage is German, and I remember when I was a kid thinking, "What do you mean you turn up at school at 8:00 and you go home at lunchtime? That's not fair. I get to school at 9:00 and I've got to stay there till 3 o'clock or 3.30."
And they'd sort of look at me and go, "Well, of course we go home for lunch." And I'm thinking, "Wait a second." Then some 20 or 30 years later, I'm reading this report going, "Oh wow, that was true and probably still is true."
Nick: Because time spent in a classroom, that's really one of the main drivers in Australia for measuring, I guess, how effective the education system is.
Colin: Yeah, again, there's some work coming out or increasing amounts of work coming out, in terms of the actual effectiveness of an individual teacher in a school. John Hattie released a couple of reports last year, June 2015. He released two papers, and I think they were designed to be read together, or one immediately after the other.
One was called "What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction" and the other one is...Let me just have a look here, "What Works Best in Education: the Politics of Collaborative Expertise", and in that paper or together in those two papers, he argues that a lot of people talk about the variance between schools. Like, "Oh, that's a better school than that one over there." But his case is, "No, it's actually not that, it's the variance of individual teachers within a school that is the problem."
Again, that raises a few uncomfortable questions. And you then have to go back to that data that we were just talking about, where in Europe they seem to be spending less time in front of their students, yet they seem to be scoring higher on international benchmarks. And so you'd have to say, "Well, at least in a very broad sense, there's evidence to suggest that their teachers are more effective.
Nick: So it sounds as though we should be benchmarking the teachers as much as we are the students, but to what extent are we doing that in Australia?
Colin: Look, it's very easy to point fingers. In fact that's one of the issues that Hattie talks about in that paper on the Politics of Distraction. He says, "Oh well, look, we've got this problem. I tell you what, let's point some fingers, and one of the fingers will point at the teachers, so let's fix them." And look, there's always going to be a wide range.
There are good doctors and there are better doctors. There are good teachers and there are much more effective teachers, let's put it that way. And to benchmark teachers I think is very difficult when you consider that there's an enormous variance in their experiences, in their resources, in what they have available to them, in terms of how they're supported.
So yes, I think that there's value in the idea of benchmarking what we think an effective teacher is. Yet at the same time I think we need to be thinking very carefully about how we provide environments for teachers to flourish in. Because if you're on struggle street the whole time, you can be a really excellent teacher but you're going to have a hard time of it.
Now, some people have more resilience and they can function better in those environments but not everyone can do that. We're human beings, we're all individual and different.
And so I think we need to take a really good look as to how we're managing a teacher's day. What we ask them to do. Is there any waste in their day? Are they doing things that just add no value, and who's asking them to do that? That's the other thing.
Nick: On a broader level, one thing that really struck me when we spoke a few weeks ago. If you've just joined us, listener, I'm here with Colin Klupiec. He runs Learning Capacity, a podcast available on SoundCloud. We're speaking about education.
One thing that you said to me, Colin, that really struck me was a question that you were asked in terms of gauging how effective a teacher is, how effective a principal may be. And that one question that you said would have been the hypothetical question you could ask any teacher was, "What books have you read in the last 12 months?"
Now, personally I think that's an outstanding question. That really answers, if it could be answered...that really shows you what you're looking for in a good teacher. It goes a long way to answering some of these questions. But you told me that the reaction that you got from a lot of people, including teachers, was, "What's that got to do with anything?"
Colin: Yes, just some clarification for our listeners there. I was in a lunchroom situation and I posited the question, and indeed the first reaction that came back was, "Why is that important?" I think the exact words were. And look, it's easy to ask a controversial question, and what do you do when you get asked that?
Well, you've got to have a good answer. And I said, "Well look, my answer is this. Consider what we ask students to do in a day. They turn up to school, they turn up to class, and one of the first things we'll ask them is, 'Have you got your books today? Can you turn to page 20 please and have a look at section...' whatever it is. Or, 'Can you open up your maths books please and turn to chapter 5, we're starting on fractions today.'"
Nick: "Have you done the reading?" And so forth.
Colin: Yeah, exactly. "Have you done the readings?" So if you go to an English class...I was having a meeting with some people just today, some educators, and the English teacher was presenting on a particular strategy of teaching which was very good actually, and quite an inspiration.
And well, what we were looking at was texts. And I think, given the fact that school and education in general...if you go to university, you'll be exposed to books, text books and reading and readers. Where they photocopy heaps of articles and they staple it together and they ask you to pay $10 and you have to go and read that for your tutorials.
So reading I think is very heavily embedded into education. Therefore the question that I asked and the response that I gave is, "Well, given the prominence of reading and books in the job that we do, wouldn't it stand to reason that you read?"
Nick: And that's a very fair call there. Do you think that that really highlights a cultural problem in Australia? I'm not sure what you've found elsewhere, but if that's what you're hearing here in Australia then that really raises some concerns.
Colin: Look, I think you've got to be very careful when you talk about culture because it's very easy to upset people, and it's certainly not my intention to upset people. Let me give you two examples.
A couple of years ago, it's a couple of years ago now, October 2014. I was fortunate enough again to visit Germany and I was there for three weeks. Fortunately I was not there on business, so I had three weeks to just really enjoy myself.
And it was towards the end of the summer, and the Europeans and Germans know that the winter is coming, and the winter is long, and it's cold, and it's wet, and it's harsh. And when we were out and about, walking around in the sunshine, you could really get a sense that people really, really savored that time.
There was this sense of, "I know this is going to end." And I'm drawing a long bow here, but I'm thinking, "If it's dark and cold and raining outside, well, what are you going to do? You could read a book. You can look on the computer, you can play with your iPad, you can do all that kind of stuff as well."
But I wonder then if I compare that with an experience that I had just last weekend on the Easter weekend here when I was down at the beach on a bike ride. I had my wife with me, we were out riding together and we stopped for a coffee and looking out over the surf, and I said to her, "Look, I wonder if this is the problem.
Things here are so easy and there's so much sunshine. Why would I want to sit inside reading a book? I've got to come down to the beach, I want to go for a surf. I just want to experience life." Look, this is a very superficial example, and...
Nick: Well it definitely explained Queensland.
Colin: Well, you said that, not me.
Nick: Go on.
Colin: But look, I'm not trying to upset anyone with this but it is worth thinking. And if you're going to say to me or if you're going to ask the question, "Is it a cultural thing?" Well, then you'd have to start...Look, like if you imagine that perhaps it was a cultural thing, then you would have to start asking questions, "Well, where are the signs that it would be a cultural thing?
How do people spend their time? Do you spend your time watching telly, or do you spend your time down at the beach?" I don't know what you spend your time doing. But surely I would imagine that if you were in an academic sphere, if you're an educator, you're in the business of academics, I would expect that you would spend a little bit of your own time, and not just work time, reading.
And look, I have to be very honest here, I was not an avid reader my whole life. That journey only started for me when I was 25 years old. And prior to that I didn't really want to have a bar of it, I didn't really see the point, but I had a bit of a watershed moment. The scales fell off my eyes and I thought, "Oh wow jeez, look what I've been missing out on all these years."
Nick: But tying back into what you were saying before about a teacher's capacity to be able to learn themselves. If they are so time poor and so stressed and they're on struggle street as you said, perhaps there's really not that room in their lives for that personal improvement.
Colin: Yeah, I think that's a very valid point, and I think that comes back to the point that I was trying to make about supporting teachers. If we overload them massively then by the time you get to the end of the day, people who are not teachers might wonder why the day finishes at 3:00.
And I can give you a very good answer for that. When 3 o'clock comes round you're finished, you're done. It's a very intensive day and then to ask someone to be professionally engaged after that, that's a big call as well.
But let's not forget, there are other professions out there that spend very, very long hours in their jobs. I'm thinking about well, almost anybody these days. But the classic ones that come to mind are lawyers, they spend a lot of time at work. Doctors who are doing incredibly long shifts. Our very good people in law enforcement who are doing very, very long shifts, and I can imagine them also saying, "Look, at the end of my shift, I'm done."
Nick: Though the example that you've used with doctors, it's a requisite of their job to go to these conferences and to continuously improve their knowledge, and they have to stay completely ahead of the curve when it comes to medicine.
I'm not sure how much of a legal requirement it is, but within their practice, if you fall behind in that you're essentially useless in your industry. Whereas if we applied that to teaching, perhaps not to such a strict degree, but we could see some marked improvements.
Colin: Well, you'd like to think so, wouldn't you? If I go to the doctor and I've just had a blood test, for example. Let's just pick something fairly basic. You go and have a blood test and we're learning how to discover things about people increasingly as time passes with a simple blood test. You'd want to be fairly confident that your doctor was up with that as well.
And there's really only one way to do that. You either listen to someone talk about it, either by listening to an audio or watching them on a video, or you read about it.
And I think that's why, if you log into any library database and checkout the journals databases...for example, one which is commonly used for education is ProQuest. If you log into that and type in a particular search term for a particular topic, there will be thousands upon thousands of articles written.
So there's a lot to take in. But obviously there's a lot of knowledge being created, so there is a lot to read. So you would hope that your doctor was pretty well up with that.
Now, the other thing is, the flip side of that, and I got this insight from a neuroscientist that I was speaking to in America, Dr. Steve Miller who said, "Look, on one level, we want people to be up with it, but on another level, we'd also like people to be up with it appropriately."
So if something really new comes out, if a new medical procedure comes out, I'd like to think that my doctor's had some time to consider that, and that the medical professions have done the proper checks and balances. So it's something that needs to be carefully balanced. You can't just say, "Oh, that's just new, I'll read about that, I'll do that." There's got to be the appropriate amount of time that's gone into making sure that it's valid.
Nick: I mentioned earlier the idea of neuroplasticity, and this really fascinates me. If you have just joined us, listener, I'm talking with Colin Klupiec. He runs an education podcast called the Learning Capacity, you can check it out on SoundCloud. He also runs a blog called Learning Success.
He's been in the education industry since 1998, and one of his podcasts, I was just listening to it before we had a chat Colin, it focuses on neuroplasticity. This is the idea, correct me if I'm wrong, the brain is a lot like a muscle and it has the potential to grow if it's engaged in the right way. It also has the potential to decay if it's not, hence Alzheimer's, dementia and so forth. Am I on the right track with this?
Colin: Yes, you are. And for our listeners, I'll just make this disclosure right upfront. I am not a neuroscientist. So whilst we are actually talking about brain science, I am not a brain scientist. However, I have done a fair bit of reading in that space from the perspective of education and learning.
And I have been very fortunate in my time in doing this to speak with some very reputable neuroscientists about current learning about the brain, about it's plasticity and what the implications are for education.
So coming back to your little intro there, yes, you are on the right track. It's funny, sometimes we might say to someone who's having a bit of a moment. We might say, "Oh, come on mate, grow a brain, will you?" The brain that you have is the brain that you have. What we try to talk about more is the strengthening of connections within the brain.
So yes, the brain is like a muscle. You can think of it like that in terms of you use it or lose it, but in a slightly different way to a muscle, brains can change.
So your muscle, for example the biceps in your arm that allow you to bend and flex your arm, can be developed to be larger or smaller, but your biceps can't do something like learn another language. And so if your muscle is damaged, let's say a muscle in your arm is damaged, it can be fixed and it can grow back. Now, again, I'll make another disclosure, I'm not a doctor or a medical scientist.
However, we'll just keep the description very simple. Your muscle can be fixed or it can grow back, or you can even have some sort of a prosthetic procedure or some sort of implant. If you've broken a bone or something, you can have screws and things put in to get that functionality back.
But brains can change and evolve in ways that muscles can't. So you're kind of on the right track there, I think, with the analogy. But it's very exciting, it's very exciting implications for education.
Nick: So I guess the first thing that will come to mind for myself and for the average listener out there, Lumosity ads, but this isn't Lumosity, is it?
Colin: No, it's not. And I had the very good fortune of talking with a gentleman by the name of Peter Carabi, who's the Vice President for Global Business Development for Scientific Learning Corporation. They make the Fast ForWord product which is a brain training program which comes out of several decades of neuroscientific research.
And the comment that he made about that is that Lumosity trains you at being good at Lumosity, whereas the Fast ForWord product trains you in the underlying cognitive functions of memory, attention, processing and sequencing.
Now, it has a specific or a particular emphasis on language learning. But the underlying fundamentals of cognitive function are being strengthened so that you can apply yourself to other things equally as well. And that's the claim between the two products.
Nick: But what are the main differences between the two, because Lumosity, as you said games, it get's you better at Lumosity. I tried it for a month and I thought, "You know what, I'm really starting to question this." I looked into the research behind it, there's not a huge amount to back it up. What does an effective product look like?
Colin: Well, that's a very interesting question which has a very large answer and a very broad answer, depending on who is the beneficiary of the effect and what that person had before they started using that particular product. In terms of Lumosity, I'll disclose that I actually haven't used Lumosity, I've only heard people talking about it, like Peter Carabi, in my previous interview, and yourself. So you having done a month of it, you've done a month more than I have.
However, I have had extensive experience with the Fast ForWord product, and coming back to those essential cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing and sequencing. We'll start with memory. You've got various types of memory. So there's short term memory; what I did this morning, longer term memory; what I did last week or over the Easter weekend. And then there's working memory which is how my brain starts to respond and process information when I get exposed to something new.
So if you were to explain to me something new right now, my brain will have to kick in and start remembering things on the fly. And that's working memory in a very, very broad nutshell. And again, a lot of the things that we're talking about now need to be thought of very generally, given the fact that there is an entire world of research and science behind these things. But as an introductory discussion, I think this is okay.
Now, attention being the next one is...someone explained this to me in a beautiful way. That person's name is Devon Barnes, and she runs a speech pathology clinic in Lindfield in Sydney, and she said to me, "If you're not attending, you're not learning."
Now, when it comes to attention, we often think about a classroom where you might point your finger at some student and say, "Hey Johnie, pay attention" or, "Listen up, listen to this. You need to pay attention to this." But the way Devon described it was just so subtle and so nice.
It was, "If you're not attending to something, you can't learn about that something." So if you're not focusing your energy and your resources on that one thing, if you're not attending to that issue, then you can't focus and learn about it.
Another way that was described to me by Dr. Steve Miller, who I just talked about, was the spotlight of your brain. So if you can turn the spotlight of your brain onto something, and everything else fades into blackness, that allows you to attend or develop your attention.
And processing is the speed at which you can deal with this new information, and sequencing is, as the word would suggest, making sure that you get all those things in the right order. So an effective program for neuroplastic change is something that is going to address those four key elements.
Now, as I said before, it depends on why you need to have this experience of neuroplasticity. Are you trying to learn a new language? Are you recovering from a stroke? Do you have a problem in working with words? So we might think of dyslexia, or do you have trouble trying to understand what people are saying when they're talking to you? So there could be an auditory processing delay or disorder there.
There might be something wrong, like you might be able to hear, so your hearing acuity might be right on. You could hear a pin drop in the room for example, but if someone says something to you, it just takes a little bit longer for you to be able to figure out what that was.
Nick: Well, let's start with just an example there that you raised, Colin. In terms of personal improvement, picture your average Joe. Thirty one years of age, receding hairline, great voice for radio and he's studying Spanish. And he knows that the fact that in the past he has studied Italian at school and lost most of it.
Now, the concept of attending that you're speaking about, this is really important when I hear people speaking about learning languages. If you don't maintain what you've learned, you're going to lose that, plus the momentum you've built. In terms of memory and focus and concentration, and I guess we'll use learning a language as an example, what would be an ideal way of improving your skill set?
Colin: Well, being a speaker of two languages myself, I can give you some pretty good advice on that one. Talk to people who speak the language well and talk to them often. That's the simplest way. And even if you have to make a little badge for yourself and stick it on your shirt saying, "Please correct me all the time."
And then be open to that correction. Effectively what you're doing is you're actually using...and this is actually very interesting.
Effectively what you're doing is a very basic application of one of the principles of neuroscience where, if you need to train your brain to do something, it needs to be intensive and it needs to be regular. So you can't just have that conversation every couple of weeks, or once a week for a couple of weeks and then once a month for a couple of months. You can't do that. It needs to be regular, and it needs to be intensive, and it needs to be challenging.
Now, the other side of it is that when you are in that situation, coming back to the principles of neuroscience, you also need to have an appropriate reward so that the reward center of your brain gets triggered when you get something right.
So if you're learning Spanish, then you might go out with that special friend who's helping you learn the language, and then that friend might say, "You know what Nick, I think you've done really well today, let's go out and have some paella."
And you might think, "Oh, fantastic. Success means good food." And whilst that sounds simplistic on one level, it's kind of nice. It's a very simple, but tangible, way of experiencing some kind of simple reward. So intensity, regularity, and then reward.
Now, good neuroscience programs will work on that basis, and the Fast ForWord programs, which I mentioned earlier, do actually do that very well. So learners do get presented with rewards along the way. And then I've also heard of parents who then incentivise their children to go through that by saying, "Well, if you finish this particular group of programs, maybe we'll buy you something special." Or something like that.
My son does the program and I said, "Look, once you go through the levels and you earn your little stars, well, every time you pass one of those little programs, I'll buy you some lego." So he already gets excited about that, so then he comes up to me and says, "Can we do the program today?" So there's incentive and motivation built into it as well
Nick: So that's not so much bribing someone as...that trick is really older than the hills. My parents tried it on me of course, but even for yourself, if you achieve something, go out reward yourself, anchor the experience.
Colin: Yeah, I think sometimes we think about learning things from such a school-based or a university-based perspective, where it's really just about sitting through someone's curriculum and then passing exams. Or making sure that we get all the assignments in on time and then we get a mark on a piece of paper, and then we might get a degree that we hang on the wall.
There's a sense of satisfaction in that, but to get these little tangible rewards makes things very personal. It's also a lot more immediate.
For you to get a reward when you're doing a university subject, it's going to take you, let's say you're doing a twelve-week semester, the first assessment task might be due in week four or week five. That task might come back to you in week six. So by the time you've started the course, it's going to take you six weeks to get any sort of reward.
And then if you didn't do so well in that particular paper that you had to write or submit, then you're going to feel a bit flat, maybe, and then you've got to wait another four weeks or five weeks before you get your next paper to get your next chance of having a reward.
So it's a very drawn-out process, which is why I like the idea of trying to learn Spanish with a good friend who can speak Spanish really well, and then going out for some paella afterwards if you get ten sentences correct in a row.
Nick: It's definitely a different way of looking at it. But mate, look, I'm going to have to wrap things up. It's been an absolute pleasure. This is fascinating and one reason I'm going to have to wrap things up is I've actually got a uni assignment that's well overdue.
Colin: Well, how about that.
Nick: And I haven't done my Spanish for the day either. Colin Klupiec runs an education podcast called Learning Capacity. You can find it on SoundCloud. And correct me if I'm wrong, that's SoundCloud/LearnFast?
Colin: Yeah, SoundCloud.com/LearnFast.
Nick: Yep, and your blog is LearnFast.com.
Colin: No, you'll have to go toLearnFastHome.com.au
Nick: LearnFastHome.com.au. Colin, it's been an absolute pleasure, and I'd love to catch up again soon.
Colin: Yeah, it's been a great pleasure as well. Thank you very much Nick, for having me on the program.