Effective Education Engages Environment

April 15, 2015

I thought I would start by providing some insight about how much influence one’s environment can have on their educational experience. By the environment I mean interactions with peers, physical setting, and the medium they are learning in. Basically everything someone experiences that is not ‘in their head’, which may not seem like much for some students.

I think people generally expect that what they are thinking, are thoughts that they created from scratch by themselves. In reality almost everything people have thought and are thinking has been constructed from their past social interactions and past experiences with different environments and objects. Every thought someone has had has been hugely influenced by a combination of a lifetime of experiences with environmental factors including the language(s) they know and are currently using (TED articleLinguistic Society), the way they have been spoken to in different situations in the past (Dweck & Mueller, 1998), the amount they have been exposed to other people’s opinions (Asch, 1951), what they have learned by observing the actions of others (Kline, 2014), or information that has been placed on objects or symbols by themselves or others (Wood, Bruner, and Ross, 1976).

Objects or areas where information has been stored are called artefacts. This could be a book or website with written information, a to-do list, an audio recording, or even an inanimate object such as a jandle (flip-flop) you put on the door handle to remind yourself to put the medicine for worms in the dog’s food, and also to remind you to handle the jandle.

Salomon (1993) and others thought it was also important to acknowledge that there is such thing as an individual cognition, that can have a division of cognitive labour with an object (such as a list), without being distributed (or shared) across their environment. Even though Salomon (1993) believed individual cognition should not be ignored, he still believed that learning environments are so intertwined with a person's cognition that studying them in different contexts than the traditional learning environment (such as artificial settings) will not produce valid results.

I believe that it is important to study individual perspectives in some situations, such as a qualitative interview (rather than quantitative experiment) investigating the perspective of a specific population with a unique worldview, however even then they are being studied in the context of their worldview (which was developed through social and environmental pressures) e.g. interviewing Amish people who are addicted to video games. In that context you can’t separate the Amish person from the video game, or the Amish person from the Amish upbringing, since that is what has led to the unique worldview that is being studied. If you attempt to study everything in psychology in the context of every other possible variable, with the goal of producing perfectly valid results, you will likely be fighting a losing battle. In psychology it is important to control all possible variables before acknowledging and investigating the role any other possible variables may have played in the results, including all environmental and social pressures. Some people (not me) think that there is no way to make valid conclusions from psychological experiments because of the complexity of variables that may affect the results.

Some researchers hold the view that the specific context in which people learn have a direct influence on their cognitive processes (way they think). Lave and Wenger (1991) discussed how the specific situation in which a mathematical skill is acquired or learned will continue to affect the way the student will complete math problems in the future. This was first discovered by the researchers when observing tailors working with apprentices in West Africa. Their ‘situated cognition’ view follows the idea that the specific situation in which anything is learned will have an effect on educational outcomes. For a musical example, if you learned to play guitar with Jimi Hendrix, you would probably play differently than you would if you learned to play with David Gilmour; just as you might do better at algebra when you learn in an online environment or a traditional classroom environment, depending on multiple other variables including individual differences of students.

Therefore, although there may be some situations where individuals are not sharing their cognition with the current setting, it is important that educational practice and research takes into account as much of the bigger picture as possible; in terms of community influence, impacts of government decisions, influences from friends and family, past experiences and so on. Obviously this is impossible for most of the professionals working in an educational sector because of the limited resources they are provided, however if parents and teachers understand more of the specific environmental influences which have significant effects on education, they can work towards these changes wherever possible. I will try to provide more of those specifics throughout this blog.

For my thesis, I researched how different dynamics of groups affect education outcomes. Group dynamics include whether or not there are differences between the group members in terms of educational ability or physical difference, the effect of different group sizes in online and face-to-face settings, how well the group members knew each other or liked each other etc. I also researched whether group sizes affected the amount students’ test scores improved, or whether group sizes affected the amount students participated in discussion. I’ll dedicate more blogs to explain my research in more detail.

As mentioned, one of the major environmental influences that affect your own opinions and learning are the opinions of your friends. It was a long time ago that Asch (1951) found that people want to do what other people are doing i.e. socially conform. Once something is popular (or even just perceived to be popular) other people want to be involved. Then the more popular it is, the more it is ‘liked’ and ‘shared’, the more people are exposed to, which leads to even more people wanting to be a part of it just because your cousin’s hot friend thought Kim’s outfit in TMZ was super cute! I mean what else explains why Crazy Frog was so fucking popular.

So that time you thought how cool that dress was, or how pimp that car was; you are probably only thinking that because of a combination of events, including your friends’ equally ridiculous opinions,the conversation in the library last week that you subconsciously overheard, and that car advertisement which implied that owning that car would increase your chance of sexy times. Or perhaps the evil marketers will appeal to a woman’s maternal instincts by repeating how safe a car will be for her tots.

Considering the success of educational outcomes depends so much on the specifics of different situations, the potential number of variables that can influence educational outcomes is vast. It is important to be aware of as many of the more influential variables as possible and the conditions that lead to the best educational outcomes, so education plans can be effectively tailored to different individuals when possible. It is also important to be aware of your own limitations and to self reflect on the fact that your ideas and perceptions about the world are based on your life experiences, and that other people with different life experiences are likely to see the world in a different light. Understanding what makes us who we are and why we have different perspectives and worldviews, brings us closer to understanding what it would be like to walk 1.6 km in another person’s shoes. At the same time as improving educational outcomes, you can improve the world by decreasing prejudices and increasing understanding and compassion towards others.