Only Getting the Right Answers is Wrong

Before I start with this post, apologies for the past weeks of silence here on Disrupt Education. I had to travel a lot and moderate an event in Germany so blogging came short, unfortunately. The good news is that I met and talked with a lot of interesting people in education 2.0 in between, so I have many interesting aspects to share with you in the coming weeks. 


Back to business. One of the people I recently had the chance to talk to is Dr Derek Muller or as I refer to him, the “Australian Khan”. Derek is the founder of an online video education project in Physics called Veritasium, and he immediately became one of my favorite teachers. 

I incidentally found Derek’s work during one of my random strolls across the web. To be precise I came across the video embedded below where Derek describes some of his findings from his PhD thesis “How to create films to teach science (specifically physics)” in which he comes up with the result that there is doubt whether students who watch Khan Academy or any other kind of educational videos in science actually learn something.

Before we go on, we need to make clear that there is a difference between learning and refreshing. The doubts Derek has about the efficiency are not based on the quality or information Khan and others present in their videos, it’s about the effect they have on someone who is starting to learn about a new topic. If you use the videos as a resource for classroom teaching or as a refresher, they work very well. 

I think Derek’s findings are very interesting and though he states that those misconceptions primarily exist in the science sector, I have seen this phenomenon in language learning as well. At the time, I was still teaching languages to adults and my student had a certain basis in a foreign language, let’s say he learned it for one or two years in college and then decided to brush it up 10 years later, learning vocabulary was pretty hard. This was especially when the learner used one of the new language learning services or applications available on the market. 

As Derek describes in the video, the learner thinks “I know this already” and then skips through the vocabulary without really learning anything. One of my long term goals has been to brush up my Spanish, and I noticed the same effect about myself. I learned new vocabulary and one or two days later I had forgotten almost everything. 

Mental effort seems to be the driver behind good learning progress. If an educational video is “clear, concise and easy to understand” it does not trigger that effort and the results are very limited. A recent experiment that caught some attention seems to prove this point. The progress of two parallel classes was being measured, one learned the classic way, the other got an extra “Khan Academy treatment”. At the end of the five-week-period, the class with the extra Khan Academy treatment only scored 1,2% better than their peers without it. 

Derek even goes so far that he thinks that education videos that just present the right answers could have a negative effect on learning. As he states in the video

If you present the right information in the video only, five things happen.

1) students think they know it

2) they don’t pay their utmost attention

3) they don’t recognize that what is presented in the video is different from what they are thinking

4) they don’t learn a thing

5) they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before

So how to implement mental effort into learning videos and break this circle? Veritasium always starts with the most common misconceptions about the topic covered in the video first. This way the student gets “confused” as all of these ideas might be true. After the experiment is done there is another discussion segment talking about the outcome and providing an explanation why it happened exactly that way.

Maybe even more importantly, Derek’s findings prove to me that “learning by doing” and “trial and error” will remain the best ways to learn and that there is a need for hands on learning in the group and classroom. Videos can only get that close to the real world experience.

If you are interested in learning more about Derek and Veritasium, you can watch my two interviews I did with him. On EDUKWEST we talked about YouTube as a place for educational content in general and how to create learning videos. On KWestions we got more into detail about his methodology.

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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