So why is transfer learning (Bloom’s synthesis) so hard? It’s because of memetic imbalance. But what does that mean?
Let’s take a quick aside to provide some context:
Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe the propagation of ideas and information through society similar to the genetics of Darwinian evolution. Stated simply, advantageous individual traits will propagate into the collective, whether they be genetic or memetic. Dawkin’s memetic philosophy paralleled the epistemological character levels defined by psychologist Clare Graves which formed the foundation for spiral memes. Graves’ looked back at human history to identify distinct societal phases and shifts, that often correlate with the dominant mode of communication; his resulting meme progression was delineated by Beck and Cowan as a helix/spiral with descriptions of the following levels:
1-Survival: Cavemen and toddlers–with basic survival needs met they can start to think about friends.
2-Tribal: Gangs and Native Americans–preserve the clan first and aggregate knowledge through fables.
3-Authoritarian: Genghis Khan and bad bosses–vanquish challenges to subjective and arbitrary control.
4-Legalistic: Government and religion–enforce standardized rules to prevent abuse of authority.
5-Performance: Business tycoons and athletes–break beyond rules to maximize metrics for success.
6-Communitarian: Sustainable cooperatives–if everyone takes, there will be nothing left to share.
Notice the Darwinian evolution between individual memes (1,3,5) and collective memes (2,4,6) with lower memes forming the foundation for higher memes. Individuals are often a complex combination of memes, evolving throughout their lives, and will load certain meme sets based on situation. After Level 6 the spiral repeats itself indefinitely with orders of magnitude increasing influence. For example, instead of worrying about individual survival, Level 7-System/Integrative is driven to facilitate the survival of all of the diverse participants within the memetic system, analogous to game preserve managers and master educator-mentors. Said differently, Level 7 works to keep a healthy balance among the memes in both individual and system levels. The spiral will continue indefinitely as society advances to new scales of knowledge and ways of being.
OK, so how does this explain the problems of transfer learning and flipped classrooms? We need to discuss how meme progression in general society shaped higher ed and engineering.
Engineering is historically about following rules/standards, applying math and equations, in order to provide a foundation for government and society, i.e. legalistic. Follow the rules established by the great visionaries that came before and thou too shall be successful. Difficulties in transferring come in when you’ve been trained for years, for example, to follow the rules for bridge design, but your tasked with designing a stressed skin structure for an airport. You haven’t been trained! Best to stop and wait rather than break a rule. My how we’ve changed since the days we were toddlers…
As society advanced from the renaissance, engineers found employment outside of the governing bodies and ushered in the industrial era. Businesses recognized the utility of engineers to innovate better products, faster, and with fewer resources, we were building a better future through performance. It could’ve went like this: When the other firms ran into road blocks our firm had the top engineers who innovated because they’ve mastered the game better than the rest, the resulting design is exceptional by every metric tested, clearly we deserve to reap the rewards. The other firms went out of business but that’s life. Whoever puts up the most points wins right? What else is there? Checkmate.
The higher ed we’ve known over the last 70 years emerged from these societal memes. No surprise, this was also the same time that Bloom published his taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy is very much a description of algorithmic rule following mastery that maps to the legalistic-performance transition. A more appropriate name could have been “Bloom’s taxonomy of rule mastery” and not limit our definition of ‘learning’ to this one particular meme shift. Sadly though, names carry weight, higher ed has had a very, very hard time of evolving past Bloom’s taxonomy and this meme/phase shift.
Our education of engineers subsequently also maps to the legalistic-performance meme needs, i.e. we want the engineers who get the best metrics (grades) for mastering the accepted rules and algorithms. Engineering education then endeavors to create the most efficient simulated environment and metrics for mastering these rules/memes. Hence “quiz before, during, and after class”, after so many years occupying the same meme shift with the need to increase performance, more frequent assessment is all that’s left. No surprise, there is a positive correlation between quiz frequency and quiz performance. Did you know there is a positive correlation between shoe size and reading ability? Of course transfer learning is hard when you’re this far out of balance in a particular meme, you forget that other ways of knowing are valid! Our societal quiz/assessment orgasm at every level of education has to stop. It’s ruining more kids than it’s helping. The system will have a hard time surviving this severe meme-imbalance.
Where Bloom’s taxonomy may be fundamentally limited, the flipped classroom has significant merit. We’re just not doing it right yet, due to our meme imbalance. The core premise of the flipped classroom is that nobody knows what students need better than the students. So use class time to help students help themselves. If you want to know it, teach it. Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand… need I say more?
Students who’ve been in “flipped classrooms” including myself will often say it feels contrived and awkward. It’s tough! Asking faculty members who’ve taught a particular way most of their life to suddenly change is a lot to ask. But it’s more than that. Asking students to work in a communal groups with their friends on problems that don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers and relationships are key is a communitarian meme activity. It’s a primarily different meme than the legalistic/performance traits our system is geared to promote. Of course it comes across as awkward!
What we need is a conceptual scaffolding to describe the transition from performance to communitarian meme, communitarian to systemic meme, and ultimately examples of what engineering education looks like when we break free from Bloom’s and the legalistic/performance rut we’re stuck in.