To Canvas or Not To Canvas: A Rebellion Against Sameness (Part 1)

Sameness is the enemy of learning.  In fact, “sameness,” in the neuropsychological sense of the word, is the exact opposite of learning!
Before you go postal, please read on and let me explain.  We know that the only time the brain

registers anything is when there is change—change in movement, change in sound, change in lighting, change in odor, change in sensation, change in thought.  You get the idea.  The brain is the ultimate “change detection” machine.  Our perception is always the perception of something changing.

If that is true (and it is J), then it stands to reason that the more things are “familiar” and “ordinary,” the less we perceive things as “novel,” consequently less real or new learning will take place.  We know this from everyday experience:  We drive somewhere and don’t have any recollection of things we experienced along the way; we think we misplaced something, but find it where we would “expect” it—because of our repetition (what we’ve already learned), our habit.  This is not to say that these are bad things—they aren’t!  Our “prior learning” saves us all kinds of brain and physical energy.  But when it comes to learning something new however, NOVELTY works for uswhile SAMENESS works against us.

I sense students fall into a routine of “sameness” when all their courses “look alike,” when they know what to expect every class.  Maybe it’s:  “Come in.  Sit down.  Listen.  Take Notes.  Pack up.  Leave.”  Or, “Log on.  Watch Video.  Discussion Board.  Take Quiz.  Log out.”  Class after class after class.  The same goes for how the course actually “looks”—that is, how the presentation of our material “appears.”  For instance, if all our courses are on Canvas, and all our Canvas shells literally “look alike,” then that routine works against generating novelty and change, which is the basis for

perception and learning.  (I’m not speaking of things not unorganized, inaccessible and unclear to students, but a sense students may have of things being “cookie cutter” or “mechanical.”)

Here’s the rub:  “Sameness” works well for us teachers!  It reduces the amount of work we have to do.  Like assembly production.  Once we’ve got a system “down,” then we can go (more or less, and in online classes it’s often more) “automatic.”

The whole goal of education, I think, is not to make teaching “easier,” but to help students “learn better.”  Hence, we find ourselves in a conundrum—be less novel and more efficient (which results in less effective learning for students, but less stress and work for us), or be more novel and creative (which means we have to work harder so that students learn better).

To be frank, over the last decade—with the exponential spread, adoption and reliance on electronic learning systems, I’ve witnessed a lot more of the former.  This correlates with multiple measures of decline in student learning, both at the secondary and college levels.  So what are we to do?  (Stand by for Part 2 next week!)

5 thoughts on “To Canvas or Not To Canvas: A Rebellion Against Sameness (Part 1)

  1. To an extent I can agree. Here’s my thought. If every grocery store were different, I would get upset. As a matter of fact, I go to the same grocery store for sameness AND variety too. The sameness that I like has to do with my ability to quickly and effortlessly (mindlessly) navigate to the sections that I need. Once I have arrived, it is the VARIETY of options that stimulate my brain. We must be careful not to confuse our course CONTENT (or that which stimulates) with the NAVIGATION/STRUCTURE (or that which allows us to effortlessly get to that stimulation). Similarly, Walmart, Target, Dillard’s, Macy’s, etc. all have similar layouts (or navigation) and where they stimulate our shopping desires is in their variety of goods.


  2. I think Mark makes a good point here. There is something in instructional message design (how courses look on the page) called “just-noticeable difference”. This means that something has to look significantly different from its surroundings for it to be noticed. Otherwise, students will gloss right over it. A novel item has to be noticed before it can be processed and learned. If all courses look exactly the same, students might know where things are, but they will be doing a lot of glossing over and not noticing key information as well. If we don’t make target learning components salient in the learning environment, students will not perceive them and will not learn them. Maybe there’s an argument for standardization and creativity (just-noticeable difference). Here’s more info on just-noticeable difference:

  3. I think that Jared’s point is a good one! However, you know what’s really memorable, when a store has a completely different navigational structure that works, like Ikea. I can close my eyes and see Ikea. If I close my eyes and try to see Sears and Dillards and Kohls, they all blend together. They are not noticeably different from one another. In TLC, we have been fighting for standardization, but the faculty are pushing back and not wanting to standardize. I can see the points of both arguments and I feel caught in the middle. -Curtis

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