Tag Archives: meaningful learning

Student-centered learning and teaching

16 Oct

I was working on one of my assignments for my doctoral studies and searching for a good definition of student-centered learning. Imagine my delight when I realized that APA provides a beautiful and comprehensive definition that is a real joy to read. As many of you already know, Nina’s Notes is dedicated to helping teachers to adopt and use more student-centered practices in their classroom. I just want to group the practices into the 3Cs to have a manageable and functional framework. Yet, what I see below fits perfectly well into my teaching/learning philosophy (emphasis and colouring mine):

 
This definition of learner-centered is based on an understanding of the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles as a representation of the current knowledge base on learners and learning.
The Principles apply to all learners, in and outside of school, young and old.  
Learner-centered is also related to the beliefs, characteristics, dispositions, and practices of teachers – practices primarily created by the teacher.
When teachers and their practices function from an understanding of the knowledge base delineated in the Principles, they
(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed
(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives
(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and
(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.
 

What else can I say?

This is exactly how I was taught during my own teacher education in Finland.  The teaching and learning process where teachers are learning facilitators and students intrinsically motivated and accountable for their own learning  should look like this in the classrooms everywhere in the world! And APA even provides more tools for  getting there!

Please read ahead:

COGNITIVE AND METACOGNITIVE FACTORS

Principle 1: Nature of the learning process.
The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience.
Principle 2: Goals of the learning process. 
The successful learner, over time and with support and instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.
Principle 3: Construction of knowledge. 
The successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in meaningful ways.
Principle 4: Strategic thinking
The successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.
Principle 5: Thinking about thinking
Higher order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking.
Principle 6: Context of learning
Learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices.

 

MOTIVATIONAL AND AFFECTIVE FACTORS

Principle 7: Motivational and emotional influences on learning
What and how much is learned is influenced by the learner’s motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the individual’s emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits of thinking.
Principle 8: Intrinsic motivation to learn
The learner’s creativity, higher order thinking, and natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn.
Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty, relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and control.
Principle 9: Effects of motivation on effort
Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires extended learner effort and guided practice. Without learners’ motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely without coercion.

 

DEVELOPMENTAL AND SOCIAL FACTORS

Principle 10: Developmental influence on learning
As individuals develop, they encounter different opportunities and experience different constraints for learning. Learning is most effective when differential development within and across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains is taken into account.
Principle 11: Social influences on learning 
Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others.

 

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES FACTORS

Principle 12: Individual differences in learning
Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and heredity.
Principle 13: Learning and diversity
Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ linguistic, cultural, and social backgrounds are taken into account.

Principle 14: Standards and assessment
Setting appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner and learning progress-including diagnostic, process, and outcome assessment-are integral parts of the learning process.

 

How can we make this become reality in classrooms?  Please check Nina’s Notes for some tools!  And let’s keep on collaborating in highlighting the importance of student-centered practices!

 

Summarized from the APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  http://www.jodypaul.com/lct/lct.psychprinc.html

Also see:  http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/techconf00/mccombs_paper.html for more information about learner-centered practices and their importance to the field of contemporary education.  

 

Active and meaningful learning

7 Aug

Have you noticed how there are people who seem to “happen to the world” and others who have the “world happen to them”? People who are proactive and engaged, and others who are passive and alienated?

People who happen to the world are the ones who make their own choices about their lives, learning and everything.  Isn’t that how things should be?  People being active and make decisions about their future, and shaping their own thinking. How about people with the passive approach to life, people who let the world happen to them? What is their learning like?

Psychologists use the term “locus of control” to describe whether people believe that they can control the items and actions of their own lives. Intrinsic control means that I am responsible for my own life. Extrinsic control means that someone else decides for me, and I need those others to come and save me from hard situations.

But, it also means that my achievements are controlled by external factors concentrated to explanations like “It’s about luck”, “This is too hard”, and “I don’t know xyz”- the last one being super funny as there is more information at the reach of our fingertips than ever before. And after teaching for a few years you have pretty much heard them all.

My favourite one is: “S/he made me do it”. Really? Did s/he now? And how, exactly?

Why this long intro, you may ask. Well, so much of our academic success depends on what we believe about ourselves and education, and the interactions of the two.  Life and learning cannot (and shouldn’t) be separated from each other. Simply measuring up to a performance standard, or creating a product (essay, project, worksheet, etc.) asked by the teacher shouldn’t be the end result of learning. Outcomes should be seen as a new configuration of students’ own knowledge, instead of superficial external measures.

This is the real problem in education: teaching is so disconnected from learning.  In the U.S. we invest more funds in education per pupil than many other OECD countries, yet the learning results are not improving. In a way it doesn’t surprise me because the fundamental idea of education is not matching reality.  When teaching is seen as is simple as imparting or transmitting teachers’ knowledge into students, or imposing the teachers’ worldview into them, then one could easily argue how creating more standards or paying big money for additional testing is the solution for the underachievement problem.  But information sharing is not teaching!  Learning must be active and meaningful for students!

When learning is understood as students internally constructing their own knowledge and effectively using it in problem solving and to support their learning process, then learning and teaching are certainly something more than just information sharing.

Students’ academic performance derives from their  learning, right?    And students’ learning depends on their academic self-concept, which consists their motivation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic) as well as engagement,  and also their own beliefs about their competence as learners. Understanding how students create their mindsets and beliefs about intelligence is important, and the research shows how ” there is more support for an effect of academic self-concept on achievement than vice versa” .[1]

Please note that I am not talking about boosting anyone’s self-esteem. I am trying to paint a picture of  having realistic self-image as a learner and a human being. Both our knowledge and our beliefs are references to the life we live. Children (students) are no exception from this rule. This is why it is so important, both individually as well as in communities like schools,  to ask questions like:

Do we believe in fixed intelligence as static and unchanging, based on inherited qualities like gift or talent (Mindset concept by Carol Dweck)?

Or,  do we view intelligence with a growth mindset, which understands the developing nature of it, and emphasized how everyone can learn?

Researchers strongly recommend the latter one:  “Encouraging a malleable (growth) mindset helps to sustain children’s intrinsic motivation, thereby enhancing both academic success and life-long learning”[2].  I think it is also very clear that only by empowering students to be active participants in their own learning and providing choices, we can create the culture of being responsible of our own lives and learning.

So, what can we all as adults – parents and teachers – do to foster this academic competence in every student?

 

N3C


[1] Bossaert, G., Doumen, S., Buyse, E. &  Verschueren, K. (2011). Predicting children’s academic achievement after the transition to first grade: A two-year longitudinal study.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 32, 47-57.

[2] Haimovitz, K., Wormington, S. V., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Dangerous mindsets: How beliefs about intelligence predict motivational change. Learning and Individual Differences21(6), 747-75

 

Quality of learning, process vs. product

19 Jul

There are processes without defined products, play being probably the best example of it. Art and music don’t have a clear definitions of quality either, but we do recognize a masterpiece when we experience it. Learning works the same way. Each student has a unique learning experience, due to their diverse abilities and expectations, so the end result of learning must be open-ended, too. When students are forced into one definite learning outcome, i.e. product (think of 27 nearly identical pieces of “art work” on the classroom wall, copies of a model/template, provided by the teacher), something important of the learning quality is lost.

We already know how important play is for learning, as numerous studies show the positive effects of engaging in free play. One important part must be how play employs our creativity and curiosity. While guided play is sometimes important for concept development, it is necessary for anyone working with early childhood age students to be able to follow the child’s lead and verbally add new dimensions or elements to the play. Sitting the child down to perform a task an adult has planned has less effective learning components than enhancing the free play. Just because we will never create the same competence while  following the thinking of someone else, as we do while thinking  things through on  our own. Playing is the visual part of children’s thinking!  Helping students to engage with their own thoughts is a huge accomplishment.

There is also evidence about how social-emotional choices made during free play, like negotiating about taking turns, actually strengthen the same processes we need in scientific problem solving.  This makes me think how important it is to share our knowledge of learning and how it actually happens with students, so that they can be empowered to engage with their own learning process. Meaningfulness defines the quality of the play, as there is not an objective criteria for children how to conduct “good play”.  This is equally true with learning process, too, where meaningfulness perceived by the students drives their curiosity and engagement in class.

Measuring quality in education is hard, partly because there is not one universal definition what good quality learning looks like. People have different connotations about educational quality, and the cultural perceptions are also very diverse.  Learning, like play, is individual and very situational and contextual.

One way of approaching educational quality[1] is to see it as perfection of the learning process, where everybody involved is required to contribute to the quality of outcome, and can be held accountable for her/his own part. Isn’t this what we want for our students? For every student to be successful in their studies, and also have ownership over their achievements?

I bet every teacher knows about “teachable moments”, and those are the key components of a good quality learning process: to receive the information and inspiration at the right time, so that learning is perceived to be meaningful by the student. Learning quality in those moments is very high, due to engagement and ownership student experiences. These experiences are more likely to be saved in long term memory, because the ownership of learning process makes the transfer of learning to happen almost automatically.

In the classroom it looks pretty much as the following: We plan for optimal instruction, but students’ learning is something more than perfectly written, measurable performance objectives. Involving students in their own learning process helps them to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers cater for students’ individual needs and preferences to make learning more meaningful for them.

Excellent educational quality emphasizes the transformative learning process that involves both cognitive and personal growth of students. It is learning for life, not just for school. This transformational type of learning happens in individual interactions. Teachers have very big role in supporting these interactions: the younger the student the more important it is to have a teacher as a trusted adult to facilitate these interactions between students and their learning environment and resources.

 


[1] Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research55(6), 671-684.

 

Learning as unending process

25 Jun

While thinking of all my students – current, past and those in the future – there is one single wish I have for them all: to become a lifelong learner. Learning is an unending process that starts before we are born, and with the growth mindset it continues through our lives. Supporting that process is how I define my work, and I like to think that I contribute to my students’ academic learning as well as their growth as learners.

Our students arrive to our classrooms with diverse skills and backgrounds, but they all have also common needs. We all  benefit from having someone to facilitate our learning, someone to help us reflect what we have learned and thus guide the learning so that it becomes deeper. The simple word “learn” has very many connotations, so I want to define here that I am talking about transformational learning, and of that in the sense the learning being meaningful and relevant to the student.

Learning is a multidimensional phenomenon, which makes it even harder to define. Learning is highly individual, situational (time wise) and context dependent. Of course all these components also interact – so every teaching-learning situation is unique. This presents the requirement for open and honest communication in learning situations, and makes learning facilitation a superior tool as compared to the traditional view of teaching as information sharing activity.

Sincere communication is the foundation of excellent learning-teaching relationships. Asking open-ended questions is much more effective than being insincere and just pretending to ask genuine questions.  Students do know the difference between a (fake) question we ask to test their knowledge and a (real) question we ask to hear their thoughts. We even listen differently to the answers to genuine questions (think of the difference between listening and hearing).  Pretending to ask a genuine question when we already know the answer quickly erodes the trust and uniqueness of learning situation (I know this may be against some “questioning techniques” commonly taught during teacher training, but please bear with me), and when the deep connections have gone only shallow learning remains.

In addition to questioning, insincere communication often aims to use unnecessary power over students (for example portraying learning as an external product instead of internal process, using extrinsic motivators, not sharing learning goal/objectives) and thus prevents the learning process from being as effective as it could be.   True enough, in formal education learning is sometimes seen as a secondary goal, and performing (i.e. passing exams, getting good grades etc) as a primary goal, which of course shifts the focus from process to performance, and thus externalizes learning.

Without actively listening to our students’ needs, we easily forget how important part the learning process plays in permanent learning, and resort to cohort thinking and try to teach everyone at once with the one-size-fits-all approach.  Nganga (2011, p. 248) talks about teaching strategies and methodology:

“When successful teaching and learning is reduced to technical assessment rather than a critical and emancipatory dialogue, teachers continue to serve institutional organizational structures that maintain the status quo rather than educating to transform the lives of students.”

Teaching can be based on products, as we want to know that students have learned the bare minimum (usually defined as a learning objective/standards) and can also demonstrate it in exit assessment, but transformative learning –  if we are lucky – continues long time after the student has left the classroom. This is why we should recognize how teaching/instruction is just one part of the learning process, and the other parts (goals/motivation,  environment, prior knowledge, aptitude and readiness) need to be acknowledged with equal emphasis.

Learning Star3

Excellent pedagogical skill is is essential for teachers, because it helps balancing the products with the process. Learning cannot be confined to school or classroom, because the tools for learning are deeply connected to other parts of our lives. Communicating about the importance of continuous learning process empowers students to learn – where ever they might be. This is a known habit of successful students. To help all students achieve better learning results, we should be sure to communicate openly about learning being an intrinsic and internal part of students’ personality – not just something we do at school with the teacher.

Nganga, C.W. (2011). Emerging as a scholar practitioner: A reflective essay review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 19 (2), 239-251.

How to grow learners

30 May

May has been such a busy month. I just realized I haven’t posted any blogposts this month, even though I have had several great discussions about education:  how to make it better, for everyone, everywhere. Those of you who have been reading my previous posts already know that I am a strong advocate for meaningful learning and that I view learning as a process, instead of a product. This distinction results from my personal (and professional) view that learning and teaching are two separate phenomena, even though in everyday language and education policies they appear to be two sides of the same coin.

Now I am vacationing and sitting on our lanai’i, sipping coffee while watching the Ocean and loving the freshness of early morning.  I am also processing all the new things I have seen and encountered – which led me think about the specific mindset of a life-long learner. You see, ever since my masters and enjoying the extensive studies in developmental psychology, I have been wondering how some people seem to learn and grow throughout their lives, while others just to stop learning.  My current conjecture is that these people cease to wonder, and stop asking the important question “why?” and just accept things as they are. From my point of view this seriously limits their creativity and critical thinking skills.

The idea of growth mindset makes very much sense, and we should foster that in our students. Instead of packing everything into a ready format (and label it discovery learning, problem- or inquiry-based learning, etc.), I would want to equip every teacher with the ability to foster curiosity in students.  So, no matter what the curriculum or instructional setting is, the teachers would be able to provide choices that spark the meaningfulness in their students’ learning.

We already know that too many ready (and definite!) answers kill students’ curiosity. There cannot be creativity without curiosity, because they both require interacting with the unknown, either in the level of actions or thoughts. And, quite frankly, the known becomes boring at some point – that is how small children learn: venturing further away from parents, deeper into the unknown, the world – and without people pushing their boundaries, we would not have the inventions of the modern life.

I don’t believe people are supposed to stop learning at any point of their lives. Ever!

This takes me back to think how we could support the intellectual curiosity and growth of every student, anywhere on the globe. We know every child is born as a master learner, and there are many sad-but-funny pictures of educators forcing students into certain molds, like square pegs into round holes. Yet, we can do better, just by choosing to support the individual growth and learning of each student.

Fostering learning is very simple. In addition to open-endedness there are some other qualities in my mind I decided to name as

CAFÉ

Communicate. Have a dialogue with your students, the most effective communication is reciprocal and includes negotiations of meaning.

Acknowledge their competence, and help to add into it. Validate their knowledge and understanding.

Feedback early and often. Provide feedback about the process (think of mapping the ground that lies ahead them, it is easier to steer clear when you know where the pitfalls are).

Encourage and empower. Support their choices. Point out other possible directions (make sure not to choose for students).

And just like coffee, or life in general, also education is best when you enjoy it – not shoved down your throat.

 

Cafe for growing learners

Cooperation vs. Competition

7 Apr

I know we live in cultures that value winning. In the modern world competition is infused to all areas of our lives: work, sports (of course), advertisements, entertainment, and relationships, even education – the sad example of wording an educational goal being the Race to the Top.
In competition there are always winners and losers. But can we really afford to have losers while making choices about education? Shouldn’t we try to educate every child?
While studying to become a teacher in Finland the answer was very clear: every student has a subjective right to learn and to be measured against her/his own previous achievements. Not those of someone else. Very fair, I think. Why should I compete with someone else, if our starting points were different?
We all have diverse skills and needs, because that’s what the life is made of – individuality. Students, while being the same age, have many more qualities that make them individual than those making them alike. Focusing on differences and supplementing those creates much better foundation for learning than highlighting superficial similarities and making ranking lists of those with competition.
The secret is to understand how equality doesn’t mean that resources and outcomes should be standardized. Equitable education simply means that every student gets the support and challenges what s/he needs – not what the other students need.

Competition usually revolves around power and/or control, no matter whether it is initiated by the students or the teacher. Often teacher is the one who has control, and sets up a competition, and then acts as a judge, deciding who is the best – a common classroom situation where points are given for various behaviours/performances/tasks/answers or taken away for misbehaviour. How does this build the learning motivation?

Another everyday example is when a student who feels powerful challenges others into competition, in hopes of gaining (more) power/admiration (we have all read Lord of the Flies, right?). I have seen many students compete about being faster, better, taller, smarter, more popular, etc. than their classmates in situations where cooperation would have been much easier and more beneficial choice.

Competition is about using power over others, in one way or other. Even while it is just an attempt to get the teacher’s attention with disruptive behavior! Unfortunately some students have learned the negative attention being the only option available for them. And as human beings we need that attention – we need others to acknowledge our existence. Finding competition in surprising situations happens when we start to pay close attention to reasons for doing certain things!

The two most harmful phenomena occurring while mixing competition and education are the externalization of the learning motivation and the distorted self-image of students. These are problematic for both losers and winners. Extrinsic learning motivation focuses on tangible rewards and makes students perform tasks instead of trying to deep learn the content, because only intrinsic learning motivation makes learning itself fun and rewarding. And for the self- image the educational psychology and research have long time been telling us how devastating comparing your personal attributes can be for the developing sense of self – and we still don’t get it??

The growth mindset (concept borrowed from Carol Dweck) is equally important for all students, because it builds grounds for life-long learning. Fostering cooperation and collegiality in the classroom enables students to grow and learn in their own pace and support each other in individual challenges.

Cooperation is about doing things together – not because we are told to do so, but because it makes sense. It is about helping each other and feeling compassion. So instead of competing who gets to go first for recess, the class could work together to make everything and everybody ready for it – this builds accountability too, when students help each other.

Cooperative learning is the diversity statement coming alive in the classroom. It is not about power or control, but about being equal, yet unique, and acknowledging the intrinsic value of each human being. It is supporting each other and understanding that everyone has different needs. Cooperation is about sharing ideas and learning constructively from each other. It is also about building better future together by setting mutual goals. Sounds like something we would want to see more in classrooms?

ABCs of Classroom Learning

18 Feb

Learning itself , of course, is such a multidimensional phenomenon that capturing it  is very hard, or maybe impossible. However, this is my attempt to simplify and verbalize how teaching and learning interact in the classroom, hence the A, B and C.

A. Have you ever noticed how right away after becoming aware of something the very same phenomenon suddenly seems to appear everywhere? (Often discussed among women just before/after getting pregnant how suddenly the world is full of strollers, big bellies and baby stuff – how did they pop up overnight?) The plain explanation is that our brain discards most of the sensory feed, so it never reaches our consciousness, until it has significance, and then it is suddenly “seen”. What we see (or hear) results from what our first filters let to be processed. Often just explained that we see things we want to pay attention to, or things that are active in our consciousness – which of course is duly noted in most lesson plan templates under “motivating students”.  Yet, as teaching and learning are two separate processes, it is a bit hit and miss to know whether students are activated and becoming aware about this new information, and this partly explains the effectiveness of flipped classroom as a teaching method and getting students engage with the learning materials on their own.

The more students are buying into the initial activation, the better predictions there are for good learning outcomes. And we all know how hungry, tired, scared, abused, stressed, overwhelmed, bored, or otherwise distracted students tend to substantially underachieve – so the very first thing in education should be ensuring students’ physical and emotional well-being. In addition to enhancing students’ cooperation with us, we teachers can also use constructive approach to activate our students, and ask them to find/categorize/present/discuss/strain  information that relates to the topic of the lesson. Applying some cognitive strategies to help students become more aware about their own learning needs enables students to become more accountable for their own learning.

B. We all also have personal ways to process further the things we become aware of, and the type of this processing depends on another set of filters we have: our beliefs[1], attitudes, rules. While explaining these filters to students, I simply hand out some different colour sunglasses to demonstrate it very concretely what it looks like to have another kind of filter. After discussing about the shades, and the way the classrooms (or certain pictures) look like with the darker shades or lighter ones, it is fairly easy for even young students to understand how they all have a unique way of seeing the world. I am not suggesting for teachers to become therapists, but raising this kind of awareness among students is just removing the barriers from successful learning experiences. Not understanding and dealing with these individual filters leads to cookie-cutter teaching and assuming every student will process the new information in an identical way, which obviously is not true.

Increasing transparency of information and knowledge by providing ample opportunities for students to discuss their beliefs and filters is bothcooperative and a cognitive tool for helping our students learn better.  Students’ self-assessment of their own learning needs, and planning tools included in executive functions can be used as parts of constructive strategies to ensure more successful learning experiences.

C. The consequences are the actions we take as a result of parts A and B coming together. Our actions, that can be emotions, cognitions, and/or behaviours,  depend on how we perceive things and what we believe about them – and also about our own  awareness or ability to  choose how we react. In education, often called learning outcomes, these actions (or reactions) are the phenomenon we teachers are assessing and reinforcing. Yet, even if all students were given the same motivation and same information their reaction will be individual, and some students will simply discard the information as uninteresting or unnecessary (especially if they already have the knowledge). Measuring input and expecting a standard output is not a functional formula while dealing with individuals. This is why teachers must be allowed to choose how to teach and to adapt the curriculum to meet the need of students.

Acknowledging the different filters and beliefs our students have and discussing the advantages of individual ways to categorize and refine the new information creates open ended and dynamic views of personal knowledge. This constructive practice is the exact opposite of stagnant “there is a single one correct answer and you’d better find it” – tradition. I also see the teacher’s role now and in the future as an essential part of learning facilitation, dealing with anything and everything that happens in part B and helping students make sense of the things they are learning (otherwise we could just use robots spewing out information, right?) and provide feedback of their learning process.  By using cognitive tools to address the beliefs, attitudes, filters, misconceptions and ideas we can provide more successful learning experiences for all students. And by using cooperative tools in learning facilitation we can increase the perceived meaningfulness of learning and help every student to get their ABCs together in the way that best supports the growth of their thinking skills.

 


[1] Beliefs here include: personal, cultural, religious, political beliefs; causal attributions, ideas, feelings, impressions, opinions, sentiments, points of view, presumptions, ideologies and misunderstandings that we use to filter the external information.

Interactions that support learning

3 Feb

Interactions are the basic fabric of learning.

We are born with an intrinsic curiosity about the surrounding world, and try to figure out the way of life by interacting with people around us. This is called the primary socialization process[1] and during this process we learn to speak and move independently, but also adopt the values and the filters our significant others (parents, caregivers) are expressing in their tone, words and behavior.  From these early experiences and interactions, and everything coming after that, we create our own worldview and expectations for life, learning and everything. In pre-school or school age the secondary socialization process shapes our interactions with other people, media and information around us.

There are many different ways to interact, and some have traditionally been used more in education than others. Today we recognize how communicative interactions are more effective than purely physical ones.  Showing (how to do something) and explaining it creates more connections in students’ brain and thus supports deeper learning.

Learning by interacting with their environment has always been the children’s natural mode of learning. Adding active concept development into explorations simply by naming the subjects of that momentary interest and providing connections to previous experiences is often instinctively done by parents.  Of course early childhood educators try to cater for this type of learning by planning for experiences and having appropriate equipment nearby. Yet, for concept development the dialogue is the most important tool. Early learning experts actively use self-talk and parallel talk to describe what they are doing or what the child is doing in order to make words and sentences become relevant for children, adding more substance to the short sentences children are able to use, yet keeping the discussion focused and meaningful.

Communicative interactions are extremely useful in all other levels of education, too.  K-12 students should have plenty of opportunities to explain why and how they helped themselves learn, and as the teacher cannot be listening to everyone simultaneously, I cannot see any other way to increase the student talk time, but by having them to explain to each other. Somehow we often seem to have the fallacy that teacher needs to hear every word – which to me seems to be a remnant from the past. If the focus of education is in control, then yes, teacher probably needs to hear every word students are uttering, but in that case interactions are very limited purely on mathematical principles (one hour, 25 students and one teacher equals 2.4 minutes of time per student) so something must be done. I strongly suggest cooperative learning activities.

Too often the view of teaching is limited to instruction, which at worst becomes a monologue: communication without interaction.[2] I think we all have been listening to lectures, but not actually hearing the message, and wishing we were elsewhere. This is far from effective teaching and meaningful learning, because it basically is just providing information for students, not facilitating their learning, as there are no immediate feedback loops. Often it is also based on power or control (mandatory lectures, no matter whether I already have learnt the content, but attending because of credit hours), instead of validity of information and relevance for my learning.

Unfortunately the same phenomenon happens in K-12 classrooms where teachers are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless whether there are students who have already learnt it and/or others who don’t possess the prerequisite skills. Why do we do this?! One helpful tool for any teacher is to use self-talk to make their thinking visible and parallel talk to help a struggling student understand a different point of view – the important part is the interactive way of using it and having students map their own actions or thoughts to make the learning process more tangible. Communication with interaction makes the difference!

Interaction without communication presents a different problem: doing things and saying words simply because we are supposed to do so. I am not talking against politeness, it is important for the everyday life, but more about the non-verbal and paraverbal language and how we know when the other person truly means what s/he is saying. Empty words are teacher’s worst enemy.  We have so little time with our students that we truly cannot afford using the precious opportunities to interact and not communicate – whether it is negotiating meaning or conveying caring – and then checking for understanding.  This is also an area where I need to grow, and be much more intentional with my words while talking. But, my problem is always that my thoughts are running way faster than I can put them into words. I am still learning.

In higher education we come together to negotiate meanings, to tap into the expertise of our colleagues, to compare and contrast our views about the subject matter and to construct new knowledge. This is the true dialogue learning is made of. It is communicative interaction, very intentional and extremely cooperative. Could we provide our students with the same experience?

To best reach our students and support their learning we want to use similar open and honest communication that is based on validity instead of power or control. We need to open a dialogue, a conversation with students and listen what they say, because learning grows in interactions.

Meaningful Learning

10 Jan

What makes learning meaningful? And how could we increase the meaningfulness perceived by students? Research shows how important  it is for students to engage in active learning and purposefully construct their own knowledge and understanding.

We also know from research how much easier is to deep learn anything that makes sense and piques interest, so just utilizing that basic understanding about learning fundamentals would help schools achieve better results. Of course it is ridiculous to assume the same things interest all students, so introducing choice would be a good place to start.

Meaningful learning

A presentation of meaningful learning is available in the end of this post. 

Meaningful learning allows students to acquire knowledge in a way that is useful for them. When you can use learned information easily, this often means that you have stored it in several different places in your mind, and you can also access that knowledge in different contexts – this is what we refer as transfer in the teaching jargon, but it actually is the natural or original way of learning.  Several contexts equals multiple connections and these multiple connections mean the objective is deep learned, because it is integrated to everything else we  know, so well that it cannot be separated from them. No learning loss happens to this knowledge – but then again it requires the content to have personal value to the learner, to be meaningful.

Learning is highly individual and takes anything between 2 milliseconds to 25 years to happen, yet in educational systems we often expect students to complete learning tasks within a certain time frame. Why? Wouldn’t it be better to allow some flexibility and let students learn in their own pace? We already have the necessary technology to do provide highly individualized learning, but are still somehow stuck in the cohort mentality. We should more diligently use tools for learning facilitation instead of sticking in traditional teaching and lecturing, because the time needed for learning is different for each student. Acquiring knowledge requires individual amount of interactions between the student and the material to be learned. These interactions can vary from reading to discussions and projects, and from lecturing to engaging students in a learning game – and the guiding principle should be meaningfulness for the learner, because that guarantees better quality learning.

Meaningful learning is also competency based, so that regurgitating same content for umpteenth time is understood and accepted to be unnecessary. This is also the basic recipe for truly diverse classrooms: students get to learn what they need to learn, not what their peers need to learn. Facilitating self-paced and autonomous learning would be extremely easy with existing technology, so why don’t we use all our tech like that? I am afraid the answer is quite ugly: we want to control what our students are learning, and how they do that (and also measure their performance). So we are asked to teach everything and everyone in the same way, and wish our students would miraculously deep learn it all, and even find it meaningful. Then we reprimand students for not being happy and enthusiastic to learn, or at least work hard to memorize all the (unnecessary) information we pour onto them. I know there are too many details in any given curriculum, and not enough higher level concepts – but there are many daily choices for teachers to either teach those details or facilitate students learning about them.

While discussing with the teachers I mentor there is one common theme they highlight about their work: the blissful feeling of being successful in teaching when a student has an “a-ha!” – moment. In that moment learning is extremely meaningful for the student, and it often has been described like windows suddenly opening and seeing the world/ the problem with new eyes. What happens in reality is brain creating new connections and applying knowledge in a new context. The extreme case of this is a flow experience, which can be quite addictive, actually.

Empowering students to learn helps them to like learning – or even crave  for more knowledge and understanding. This means they are learning for life not just for school. We can change the future world by choosing to provide meaningful learning experiences for our students. How do you choose to teach today?

 

 

Here is a presentation of meaningful learning:  Meaningful Learning NotesFromNina

 


[1] Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D. & Hanesian, H. 1978. Educational psychology a
cognitive view. 2. painos. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2002). Rote versus meaningful learning. Theory into practice41(4), 226-232.

Global education everywhere

27 Nov

Every child has a right to learn.  This makes education a global issue. I am glad we are cooperating in educational research and making the latest information available for everyone via internet. In my mind this makes education more global as we become more aware about different practices around the world.

Every teacher should be empowered to teach and to know they have choices. Comparing educational practices internationally may help us all to adapt better practices. I like to share the Finnish know-how of education, and  while I am excited to see yet another study highlighting Finland as the best country in education, I am also hoping  that the takeaways are much greater than just a simple ranking list.

Having data is not important, but knowing what to do with it!

New Pearson education study ” The Learning Curve”  provides 5 important talking points:

  1. No magic bullets – there are no quick fixes in education, long term joint planning is needed for sustainable education quality.
  2. Respect teachers – trust in your teachers and value them, because they are your professionals that schools cannot function without!
  3. Culture can be changed – find the positive elements in your educational culture and highlight them, then start building on that foundation.
  4. Parents are not the key – but they certainly should be your allies! We have a joint mission: student success.
  5. Educate for the future – empower students to learn. Focus education on how to  learn and how to think, because that improves transfer to all other areas of education.

I think these points are no news for people who are working on improving the quality of education around the world. It is very nice, though, to get additional affirmation for thoughts we have been posting  and discussing about.

The one very important message is about changing your culture. We often talk about students, how they are not clones and should not be treated like ones. Standards are not the solution. Educational systems have their distinctive characteristics, too, and thus global education must have a unique look in different countries, districts and schools.

The paradigm change for educational quality must start at all levels of education – we cannot afford to wait for someone else to change first. Sometimes it is hard to find opportunities to choose. But, I refuse to believe there would be a classroom/school/educational system/country with absolutely no choices for students/teachers/administrators/policymakers to make learning more meaningful – the least we can do is to choose a “can do”  attitude.

How could your class/school/district be global and unique at the same time? What are your positive elements?