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Integrating technology, pedagogy and theory: a resource for Visual Learning

September 4, 2009

Abstract: This paper describes a project at The Centre for Excellence in Work-Based Learning for Education Professionals (WLE Centre) at the Institute of Education, University of London that draws together a number of studies and assigns a developmental typology of visual learning implementation and approaches to provide a unique resource for further research and professional pedagogical development. It combines a metastudy of literature of Visual Learning and technologies with an evaluation of effective models of pedagogical and curriculum development through professional learning. The multi-modal online resource, relating to the policy, theory and practice of all aspects of Visual Learning, will bring together academic studies from international research; policy and best practice disseminated through Becta and other government agencies; case studies focused on classroom best practice and innovative technologies from industry.

Background

During the past ten years governments and education departments across the world have invested significant sums of money in a range of whole-class visual display technologies such as data projectors, interactive whiteboards and visualisers (Cuthell, 2005a; 2008). There have been many reasons for their adoption: the technologies have been seen as a way of meeting government targets for ICT implementation, for providing access to the latest educational resources or as a way of transforming and modernising the outcomes of educational systems (Cuthell, 2005a). The high capital cost of these technologies has meant that individual teachers and schools have rarely been able to specify or select the tools for themselves. One result of this has been that the technologies, and the changes that they produce, are often seen by teachers to be externally imposed on them and their classrooms (Cuthell, 2006). Staff development is often limited to a brief instructional session that focuses on basic ‘mastery of the controls’, rather than an exploration of how the tools can be integrated into teaching and learning (Moss et al, 2007).

However, expectations of these technologies are artificially high, and researchers are often pressured to produce findings that justify the high capital investment. Assumptions that the introduction of a new technology will per se achieve pedagogical change and an improvement in learning outcomes are difficult to substantiate through research, and research findings are often lost by politicians and misrepresented in the media (Kennewell, 2006). Many surveys produce results that are limited by respondents being given neither enough information, intellectual space nor time to make a useful judgement or evaluation of visual display technologies and visual learning (Smith et al, 2007).

This paper describes a project at The Centre for Excellence in Work-Based Learning for Education Professionals (WLE Centre) at the Institute of Education, University of London that provides the opportunity to draw together a number of studies and assign a developmental typology of visual learning implementation and approaches to provide a unique resource to support further research and professional pedagogical development.

The Centre for Excellence in Work-Based Learning for Education Professionals (WLE Centre) at the Institute of Education, University of London, is an initiative to encourage excellence and innovation in Higher Education. The WLE Centre aims to develop new approaches in work-based learning through facilitating innovations in learning at work and through professional practice; teaching and assessment modes for work-related and work-located learning; uses of e-learning and digital technologies and developing new conceptual and theoretical approaches to work-based learning.

The project combines a metastudy of existing literature on the technologies of Visual Learning and an evaluation of effective models of pedagogical and curriculum development through professional learning. A particular focus is on the ways in which work-based learning can support curriculum and institutional change.

The online resource will create a multi-modal online resource relating to the policy, theory and practice of all aspects of Visual Learning and bring together academic studies from international research; policy and best practice disseminated through Becta and other government agencies; case studies focused on classroom best practice and innovative technologies from industry.

This will be freely available online and form a growing knowledge base for academics, students, schools and teachers. The project will also provide video evidence and metatags that will link to other work-based learning projects.

The project identifies a range of pedagogical strategies to support and reinforce Visual Learning and the ways in which it can be integrated across age-related curricula; models for deployment across institutions; the integration of Visual Learning into assessment practice; the role of work-based learning to support the integration of visual learning technologies into existing and developing pedagogical practice and learner perceptions of the impact of visual learning on personal learning and progress.

This resource draws together the common threads and identifies the key issues of visual learning, its technologies and its pedagogies for the profession. It explores the relationship between technology, theory, pedagogy and learning; the relationship between work, learning and professional practice and the relationship between pedagogy, assessment and visual learning.

It will meet the needs of academics, teachers and other stakeholders for a resource that draws together existing work into Visual Learning and its related technologies. ‘Seeing the Meaning’ will provide free access to all those wishing to use findings and information on the subject of visual learning and its technologies to further their own professional development, or to implement it in the workplace.

Towards a Theory of Visual Learning

Learning can be seen as a mental function that relies on the acquisition of knowledge (of different types and range) that is grounded in information – whether specific or perceived. What is learned is used as the basis of further learning, skills, values, belief systems, ideologies and competences. The visual learning process is one that can be seen to underpin others (cf. Ostensiveness: Piaget, 1953.) The assumptions that follow are drawn from current thinking about the relationships between what we see, what we remember and what we know. They help to explain why visual learning may be important, and how a range of technologies may contribute to these processes.

What Science suggests

Connections in the brain are constantly changing: they are not hardwired (Greenfield, 2003). The synapses relating to vision peak at around 10 months. The density of these synapses then declines and stabilises around 10 years of age. It is the pattern, however, rather than the number of connections that is most important. In terms of cognitive development there are ‘windows of time’ in the developing brain: critical periods for neural connections and pathways (Hubel & Weisel, 1981). The concept of plasticity is relevant here, in terms of the ways in which organisms adapt to environmental stimulus – in particular the brain, and the ways in which it adapts to stimuli (Maturana & Varela, 1981.) Plasticity refers to the ways in which brain structures can change to better cope with the environment: neurons or synapses can change their internal parameters in response to inputs and stimuli. The theory of neuroplasticity (Shaw & McEachern, 2001) describes the ways in which thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization from top to bottom.

Within the cortex, one region looks different from another, not because the function is different, but because of what it is connected to. However, all cortical regions perform a common function or algorithm (Mountcastle, 1978). Vision is no different from hearing, which is no different from motor output. Cortical connections across the different regions of the cortex are genetically determined.

What does this mean for Visual Learning?

The stimuli that come from the senses of sight and hearing are not the same, although there is a similarity in the way in which the cortex processes the signals. Therefore the cortex is dividing itself into task-specific functional areas long into childhood. The importance of plasticity is that the wiring of the neurocortex can change and rewire itself. The brain regions develop specialised functions based on information flowing in during the process of development.

The sequence can be simplified as:

Visual information à optic nerve fibres à thalamus à primary visual cortex

These inputs from visual information are converted: the inputs become neural signals. These neural signals act as ‘action potentials’, or spikes, and are partly chemical and partly electrical.

Each set of patterns is experienced differently, but the input to the brain is no different for visual, aural, sensual, motor signals or stimuli.

Is Visual Learning more powerful?

Vision relies on both spatial and temporal patterns, which are constantly changing over time, unless we simply look at unmoving object, with no change in either the lighting or our own position. The visual input is more likely, therefore, to generate a greater number of ‘action potentials’ than other stimuli.

The processes through which memory leads to recall are based on pattern sequences and temporal or spatial patterns recreated from partial versions of pattern sequences known as invariance. These invariant forms are stored in the cortical memory and reconstructed.

Cortical memory

The reconstruction of visual memory within the cortex can be represented as:

Storing sequences → auto-associative recall → predictive ability à Invariant representations

Interactivity

Changes in input  →  increases in range of predictive ability

(Cf. Visual technologies in classrooms)

Predictive behaviours and abilities are based on prior behaviour and experience – for example, the progression from Concrete through to Abstract thinking (Piaget). These can be termed invariant representations.

Imagination

If we consider that way in which imagination works – “… seeing pictures in my head …” as one child said – then the process that we use for making predictions is reversed to produce neural inputs.

Predictive output → reversed = inputs

In this way the visualisation process is used for performative preparation, for example, by athletes, technicians, craft workers, artists and so on.

The Mind

And as for the Mind, it’s what the Brain does …

Changing performance: the role of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a class of nerve cells in areas of the brain. They relay signals for planning movement and carrying it out. The mirror system is activated when specific actions are watched, even concentrating on a separate task (Muthukumaraswamy, 2007). Motor systems in the brain are activated when a person observes an action being performed: it suggests that we understand and learn to imitate the actions of others through these brain mechanisms. Mirror neurons therefore reveal how children learn.

Mirror neurons fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions. They then provide a template for the individual to replicate, a model for analysis of others and for prediction.

Mirror neurons provide clues to how children learn: they are active from birth (Meltzoff, 2007). This suggests that human children are ‘hard-wired’ to learn through imitation, with their mirror neurons involved in observing, and then practicing. Earlier studies – the theory of Observational Learning (Bandura, 1986) suggest that an observer’s behaviour changes after viewing the behaviour of a model. Findings from research into mirror neurons provides additional support for the Observational Learning hypothesis, which was often typified as simply constructed from causal connections. In fact, observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons. By watching a game, a performer will be better able to predict what will happen next.

Re-defining interactivity

For the past ten years the term ’interactive whiteboard’ has produced discussion and dissent, with a significant group of educationalists and researchers expressing concern that the technology did not, in fact, appear to lead to a shift in pedagogy on the part of users – and that the technology seemed to reinforce traditional modes of pedagogy, rather than those considered ‘interactive’ (Moss et al, 2007).

It may be helpful, however, to reconsider the notion of interactivity in the context of technology use, and see it in terms of the interaction between the visual objects and the ways in which these are processed. Changes in input, the ways in which mirror neurons process the inputs and the impact on memory and imagination, may be more significant than the preferred pedagogical approach of a teacher.

Implications for Education: why Visual Learning is powerful

Vision relies on both spatial and temporal patterns. These patterns are constantly changing over time. This visual input therefore generates a greater number of ‘action potentials’ than other stimuli (e.g., aural).

The use of visual display technologies provides an easy focus for learners. By the visual sequencing a learning process mirror neurons can be fired and the sequence then replicated, modelled and applied to other contexts – a powerful reinforcement in mathematics education, for example (Averis et al, 2005).

When we talk about interactivity (as, for example, with interactive whiteboards), the concept of interactivity should not necessarily be predicated solely in terms of the human actors. It is much more between the learner and the display – and the ways in which there are constantly changing visual inputs, and therefore more ‘action potentials’.

These changes in input produce increases in the range of visual memory, predictive ability and in the visualisation process, with mirror neurons an integral part of the process.

It should be stressed, however, that there are innate differences in perception: whilst a number of observers witness the same events, neither the ‘action potentials’ or the outcomes are necessarily identical.

John P. Cuthell

MirandaNet Academy

United Kingdom

John.cuthell@mirandanet.ac.uk

Citation details:

Cuthell, J. P. (2009) Integrating technology, pedagogy and theory: a resource for Visual Learning. In: Carlsen, R., McFerrin, K., Weber, R., Willis, D. A.  (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 200 (pp. 3074 – 3078) Norfolk, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education

References

Averis, D., Glover, D., Miller, D. (2005) Presentation and Pedagogy: The Effective Use of Interactive Whiteboards in Mathematics Lessons.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cuthell, J. P. (2005a) The Impact of Interactive Whiteboards on Teaching, Learning and Attainment. In Price, J., Willis, D., Davis, N., & Willis, J. (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2005 (pp. 1353 – 1355) Norfolk, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education

Cuthell, J. P. (2005a) The Impact of Interactive Whiteboards on Teaching, Learning and Attainment. In Price, J., Willis, D., Davis, N., & Willis, J. (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2005 (pp. 1353 – 1355) Norfolk, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education

Cuthell, J. P. (2006) Tools for Transformation: The Impact of Interactive Whiteboards in a range of contexts. In Crawford, C. M., Carlsen, R., McFerrin, K., Price, J. Weber, R., Willis, D. A.  (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2006 (pp. 1491 – 1497) Norfolk, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education

Cuthell, J. P (2008) The Use of Visualisers in Schools http://tinyurl.com/8s2p9x Accessed 18.01.09

Greenfield, S. (2003) Tomorrow’s People. London. Allen Lane.

Hubel, D. H., Weisel, T.N. (1981) Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system

Kennewell, S. (2006) Reflections on the interactive whiteboard phenomenon: a synthesis of research from the UK Swansea School of Education. The Australian Association for Research in Education

Maturana, H. R., Varela, F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.

Meltzoff, A. N., & Brooks, R. (2007). Intersubjectivity before language: Three windows on preverbal sharing. In S. Bråten (Ed.), On being moved: From mirror neurons to empathy (pp. 149-174). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

Moss, G., Jewitt, C., Levacic, R., Armstrong, V., Cardini, A. & Castle, F. (2007) The Interactive Whiteboards, Pedagogy and Pupil Performance Evaluation:  An Evaluation of the Schools Whiteboard  Expansion (SWE) Project: London Challenge   Institute of Education DfES Research Report No 816

Mountcastle, V. (1978) An Organising Principle for Cerebral Function: The unit module and the distributed system. In Edelman, G. M., & Mountcastle, V. B. (1979). The Mindful Brain (pp. 17-49). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Muthukumaraswamy, S.D., Johnson, B.W., Gaetz, W.C., Cheyne, D.O. (2006). Neural Processing of Observed Oro-Facial Movements Reflects Multiple Action Encoding Strategies in the Human Brain. Cognitive Brain Research, 1071, 105-112.

Piaget, J. (1953), The Origin of Intelligence in the Child, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Shaw, C., McEachern, J. (2001) Toward a Theory of Neuroplasticity. Hove, Sussex: Psychology Press. Taylor & Francis

Smith, F., Hardman, F., Higgins, S. (2007) The impact of interactive whiteboards on teacher-pupil interaction in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies 2006. British Educational Research Journal Volume: 32 Number: 3 pp. 437-451 ISBN/ISSN: 0141-1926

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