Thursday, February 20, 2014

Khan Academy: The Illusion of Understanding (Part 1)

Guest blog by Dr. Marc Schwartz
Professor of Education at the University of Texas at Arlington
Director of the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education
This post is based on an article by the same name published in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks.

The Illusion of Understanding
For the past three decades I’ve been working to dispel myself of an illusion that’s hard to recognize and even harder to overcome. I call it the “Illusion of Understanding.”  It’s the false belief that we understand something but then we discover we actually don’t.  The example problem below will help clarify what I mean.  Consider the following…

Iceberg Challenge
Glass of ice water with ice cubes floating in it
The glass of water in this picture is filled to the brim.  One more drop, and water would spill over the edge.  When examining the ice you note that the cubes rise just above the surface of the water (like glaciers in the ocean), but do not extend to the bottom of the glass.  Now here’s the challenge: Imagine patiently waiting on a hot summer day until all the ice melts.  What will happen to the water level?  Does it rise and over-flow the glass, remain constant throughout the melting process, or go down?

What do you think will happen to the water level when all the ice has melted?

Think about what’s going on for you as you wrestle with this challenge.  Do you feel like you know the right answer? How confident are you in your response? Are you, like most people who face this challenge, surprised to find that you aren’t sure of the answer, while also feeling conflicted because you think you should know it?  If you answered “Yes” to this last question, then you just experienced the Illusion of Understanding first-hand.

This is a challenging problem for most people – physics students and adults alike. Yet the problem is based on a principle called Archimedes Principle that most of us encountered at some point in a physical science class.

As challenging as the problem is for students, consider how much more daunting it is for a science teacher who wants to help students understand the principle so well that even years later they can confidently use that understanding to solve problems like this one.  I know how daunting the challenge is, because many years ago I was that science teacher.

Here’s the dilemma. As a teacher, I can assure you that it’s very, very difficult to help students develop what I call “authentic understanding” – the kind of understanding that would enable them to answer the iceberg challenge correctly and explain why their answer is correct.  It’s a great deal easier (although not a conscious goal) for a teacher to leave students with the illusion of understanding – the belief that they understand the relevant principle even though they can’t answer questions based on the principle.  I have given the iceberg challenge to hundreds of intelligent, educated adults over many years. Based on their performance I’d say that – despite the best efforts of many capable, dedicated science teachers – authentic understanding in this subject area is relatively rare while the illusion of understanding is quite common.  However if you ask people in the grip of the Illusion whether they understood their science teacher’s lesson on Archimedes’ Principle, many would say “yes” without hesitation.

MOOCs to the rescue?
Let’s carry our self-experiment one step further to see how deep the Illusion goes in this case.  Perhaps Kahn Academy can help you solve the iceberg challenge (assuming schooling has not). Khan’s curriculum on Fluids, Part 5 and Part 6, constitute a formal presentation that, in principle, should allow you to solve the problem as posed above. I invite you to watch those two videos now and try to answer the Iceberg Challenge again.

(Go ahead and watch the videos now.  I'll wait…)

How did you do?  Were you able to resolve the iceberg challenge? Do you feel more or less confident in your answer now?  Khan claims that the ability to control the pacing of the video and the opportunity to re-watch the session will help. You may want to test those assumptions.

How to Develop Authentic Understanding
I have found that Khan – like the many others who use similar instructional strategies both online and off – are overlooking over a hundred years’ worth of discoveries in the learning sciences. Below, I list five major discoveries that define requirements for achieving authentic understanding (see the companion article published in this month’s Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks for additional detail):
  1. Authentic understanding depends on hierarchically organized knowledge.
  2. Authentic understanding is grounded in direct experience.
  3. Authentic understanding is stabilized by practice (generally at every level within the hierarchy).
  4. Authentic understanding requires formative feedback.
  5. Authentic understanding is context-sensitive.
When these insights are ignored, as they are most of the time in online instruction, educators and students risk reinforcing and perpetuating the Illusion of Understanding, which I have observed in many classrooms and in many countries.  Typically the illusion unfolds in dramatic fashion when teachers ask students to explain their answers, and the students suddenly realize they can’t. Students find themselves speechless or stuck in a rambling explanation that doesn’t even make sense to them.  I have even observed students give a correct explanation and then admit they didn’t understand what they just said.  Now, as the teaching and learning enterprise unfolds on a world stage through a variety of online platforms, we face the risk that the Illusion will be even more widespread and difficult to dispel than ever.

Assuming that your struggle with the above iceberg challenge is no different than almost everyone who attempts the challenge, which of the five observations seem relevant? Did you feel that you lacked the perquisite experiences to reach an answer? Did your past experiences feel relevant yet unconnected or unreliable? Did you feel like you needed to practice some kind of mental exercise but did not know which or how?  These questions all underlie the complicated teaching and learning environment that lead to authentic understanding.  I don’t claim that the process is easy, but the investment is necessary. The challenge here should also underscore another illusion- that is, the illusion that achieving expert status in one discipline - as a hedge fund manager, for example - automatically transfers to another discipline, such as teaching. Teachers, like hedge fund managers, spend decades to become competent at their craft.

If you do watch the videos, which of the five observations seem to be relevant to your experience of understanding?  You will note that Khan does use a similar challenge in parts five and six of his video series, but the context is different.  Does that matter? In Part II we explore in further detail the Illusion of Understanding in the area of math and explore what choices may be available to Khan and all educators, especially those who work online, to better support authentic understanding.

(Continued in Part II which is available here.)