Bumblebees Can Learn

Check out this cool new study published in SCIENCE Magazine. The study proves that bees can learn, and they can adapt what they’ve learned to new situations.

The researchers created some really clever tasks for the bees, and the descriptions of what the bees had to do are pretty complicated. First, the researchers showed the bees a small yellow ball at the center of a blue circle. The ball had a sugar solution inside, and the bees learned to go up to the ball, and get the sugar, pretty quickly (within 48 hours).

Next, they put the yellow ball outside the blue circle, and the bees could only get to the sugar after they pushed the ball into the center of the circle. The researchers started by showing the bee how to do it–they made a stick with a plastic bee at the end, and the manipulated the stick so that the plastic bee moved the ball into the center. At first, the bee could eat the sugar once the plastic bee had finished, but after a few times of this, the bee had to move it himself to get the sugar.

14 bees figured out how to move it themselves within 10 tries. The researchers got rid of the four dumber bees who couldn’t figure it out. Then, the researchers gave the bees a much larger blue circle, and all of the bees still could move the yellow ball to the center, ten tries in a row. The bees kept learning; on each of the ten trials they took less time to finish, and their path to the center become more direct.

Next the researchers put the bees through a complicated task that’s hard to describe briefly. In short, they showed that the bees learned best when they could watch another bee doing it, compared to another learning situation where they didn’t have another bee to watch. That’s social learning–learning from watching and imitating someone you recognize.

Then, with yet another complicated experiment, they showed that the bees aren’t just copying what they see another bee do, but that they learn to adapt what they’ve learned to new situations. For example, if they were shown another bee moving the farthest away ball, they knew to move the closest ball instead of that farther one. And second, if the ball color changed to black, they could still do it.

The researchers point out that these artificial tasks are way harder than anything bees have to do in the wild. Evolution didn’t require this adaptation (of being able to learn this way). This means that animals can end up smarter than they need to survive in the wild. (We’re talking about you, human beings!)

Here’s their conclusion:

Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities.

The Common Core Curriculum

In my Spring 2011 course at Washington University titled “The Future of Schools,” we’ve been reading a wide range of studies about the broad shift in the world’s economies to more creative, knowledge based activities. We’ve been reading about the potential impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on schools of the future. The mystery facing all research-based attempts to reform schools is: Why do schools stay the same, year after year and decade after decade, even as new research accumulates? The practice of medicine advances every year, when basic research findings are translated into clinical practice. But the same doesn’t seem to happen with education.

I suspect that everything will stay the same, until suddenly, one day, everything will change. I think it’s impossible to predict exactly when the change will occur. Here’s one new development, in the United States. In the U.S., every one of the 50 states has legal responsibility for public schooling; there is no federal government control of public schools, under the U.S. Constitution. So unlike almost every other country, there is no national curriculum, no national test, and it is very difficult to compare students from one state to the next. In recent years, over 40 states have independently agreed to use the same “common core” standards, which are currently under development. At the same time, the consortium of states is developing a new set of standardized tests, with $330 million of funding from the U.S. Department of Education. And in the New York Times of April 28, 2011, I learned that:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, and the foundation associated with Pearson, the giant textbook and school technology company, announced a partnership on Wednesday to create online reading and math courses aligned with the new academic standards…The 24 new courses will use video, interactive software, games, social media and other digital materials to present math lessons for kindergarten through 10th grade and English lessons for kindergarten through 12th grade.

This is fascinating. If the pieces all fall into place, it’s not hard to envision an increasing number of students choosing to opt out of school altogether, and sign up for these online courses. Pearson is planning to market the new courses directly to schools and districts, as a replacement for the textbooks they are currently buying; but I’m sure some parents will wonder, why can’t I just do this at home?

As Richard Halverson and Allan Collins argue in their recent book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, technological developments like these will continue whether or not schools adapt accordingly. And if they don’t figure out how to respond and adapt to new developments like this, they may become increasingly irrelevant. This would not be good for the future of public schools, and it should concern all of us.

*Sam Dillon, “Foundations Join to Offer Online Courses for Schools.” New York Times, April 28, 2011, p. A18.

Collaboration and Learning

I’m now in Amsterdam where I just gave a talk about collaborative creativity at the big European educational research association, known as EARLI.  The organizers of the panel were Neil Mercer (University of Cambridge) and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland).  Four people spoke about this topic:

Eva Vass (University of Bath) described her research on children’s creative dialogues, conducted with Dorothy Miell (Open University).  She studied 7 to 9 year olds in a New Zealand school; she showed how these children almost instinctively coordinate their conversations by managing the “floor” (a technical term for who is speaking and when) through “jointly constructed utterances, simultaneous, and overlapping speech” in a way that resulted in “mutual inspiration.”

I then presented a research study I did with Stacy DeZutter (now at Millsaps College) of a youth theater group.  We studied the collaborative improvisation of an improvised performance, over 12 rehearsals and five live performances.  The most interesting findings were: (1) the performance never did become completely scripted; the group kept improvising and embellishing; (2) no single performer played a central role, all of the dramatic elements emerged from the dialogue on stage.

Anneli Etelapelto, of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, then described her study over two years of a group of teacher education students.  She closely analyzed five meetings of this group, and compared the least creative and the most creative sessions.  Uncreative sessions had “disputational talk” where each person attempted to invalid the others’ opinions.  The creative sessions displayed “complementarity in participants’ talk and by inclusive utilisation of each other’s views”.

The final presentation was by Neil Mercer of the University of Cambridge.  He and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) videotaped rehearsals of a rock band, and showed how often they disagree, often arguing heatedly and with swear words, and yet their dialogue still contributes to a successful performance–because they are all committed to a shared vision (of how their band should sound) and a shared goal of a successful live performance.

I am excited that the study of collaborative creativity is beginning to have an impact on how we think about learning.  So many of our most important learning experiences happen when we are in groups with others, and this is why understanding collaboration is central to the study of learning.

The Neuroscience of Creativity

I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.

The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative?  Or when it’s listening to music?  Or looking at a painting?  The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general?  For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math.  But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true.  We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.

For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.

I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains?  If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better?  (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.)  I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum.  But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.

Corporate Learning and Creativity

Imagine you’re the CEO and your goal is to make your organization more innovative.  Where would you start?  No doubt, you would start with your people.  And the part of the organization responsible for your staff’s professional growth and development is human resources.  “Human resources” gets a bad rap; in the Dilbert comic strip, the evil Catbert symbolizes the senseless bureaucracy too often associated with the human resources department.  But thriving, innovative companies are learning organizations.  Learning organizations provide constant opportunities for everyone to reach their fullest creative potential.

I touched down in the human resources world last week, when I gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the eLearning Guild.  (Listen to a pre-conference audio interview.)  The members of the Guild are the people that design web-based learning applications for corporate training, certification, licensing, legal guidelines…we’ve all worked through at least one such on-line application.  Most of them are far from innovative–you’re presented with a bunch of information, then afterwards you’re tested with multiple choice, true-false items.  This is simple information delivery, and all the research shows that this sort of learning does not result in creative employees.

So, in my talk, I drew from the latest research in both the innovation process and in the learning sciences.  This research gives us a pretty good idea of how to design learning environments that foster creative learning, rather than simple memorization of facts.  The problem is that this research is just now starting to emerge from university research labs, and most people “down in the trenches” haven’t encountered it yet.

But instructional designers in HR departments can’t make the transformation to innovative learning all by themselves.  The transformation has to be initiated by senior management, and they have to push hard to create a culture of organizational learning, and of innovation.  Only with top management support can an HR department shift to designing innovative learning applications that do more than simply deliver information.

I was extremely impressed by the knowledge and talent of the professionals in attendance at this event.  They’re exploring some truly exciting and innovative technologies: immersive learning simulations, multi-player online games, even using cell phones to deliver on-demand instruction.  Keep your eye on this sector; you’re going to see dramatic changes in the next three to five years.