Friday, May 13, 2011

How to Make Learning Happen

I am fascinated by what causes learning to occur for students - and why long lasting learning does not occur at other times... Here are ten factors that describe my current thinking on the topic: (All of these reasons are important - they are not listed in order of significance. )

1. At the first of the year when 32 students come walking in the door they are 32 individuals curious about what they will find in this class. The first few days of the semester are the most important time for establishing class culture. What expectations will the teacher have of the students, and what classroom patterns can students expect, will the teacher be consistent or indecisive? It is a crucial task to think in advance what the class culture will be and then have the courage to maintain the goals. It is like training a puppy.

2. It is necessary for a genuine connection to be formed between teacher and students... this is especially important if there are social, economic, class, or racial differences between the teacher and students. It is the teacher who must adapt - Students first response to a new person may be to build walls between themselves and "the stranger" (they may have learned to protect themselves in this way). Working to take down those walls is essential before learning will occur. Students know when you are sincere or not. Sometimes new teachers make the mistake of wanting to be everyones "friend" - This is a sure invitation for disaster - students know you are the authority in the room, it is confusing if they also get the message that "we are equals".

3. Students are not empty vessels just waiting to be filled with knowledge. Each student is a unique collection of knowledge, erroneous ideas, and dispositions toward learning. When the teacher stands before the students with an appreciation for individual students – it changes the act of teaching. Now it becomes necessary to engage students, to get feedback from students, and to respect the different ways in which students approach learning. Our goal is not to train everyone to think like us but instead for each student to become capable of critical thought and problem solving. (Constructivism)

4. Learning “facts” is not effective education– Learning whole concepts is. The water cycle is a concept. So is understanding how the human heart pumps and receives blood from throughout the body, and explaining how water movement in a vascular plant is different from fluid movement in a mammal. Concepts include facts – but they are related into whole ideas. Concepts are like snow balls - you can add on to a small one to make it bigger and bigger... Students can develop a rudimentary understanding of a concept one year and in following years learn more and expand conceptual understanding from elementary school to university.

5. The brain of each human develops according to a predictable sequence of stages - in terms of our ability to deal with abstract concepts. A sixth grader may be able to work with relationships, one variable at a time, if they can see or manipulate a concrete model. For many people, this “concrete” stage of development continues into about the 8th or 9th grade… At some point most of us become able to visualize in our head interaction of two or more variables… the formal thinking stage is born. The stage of abstract reasoning has nothing to do with intelligence – each stage emerges in its own time. (Developmental Psychology)

6. How many times have I heard a student say: “ I don’t understand this at all!” – It is the task of the teacher to diagnose the students knowledge and identify a suitable entry level question on the topic that the student can answer – then follow with a sequence of questions leading the student to discover that in fact they had all the parts of the answer – they just needed some help putting the full idea together. (Socratic Questioning)

7. Note taking is an example of a skill that students must learn to do – If the teacher prepares in advance a partially completed note-taking paper and then pauses at times in the delivery to allow students to fill in the missing information – this is an example of scaffolding – The secret to scaffolding is to slowly remove it when students no longer need it… Remove it bit by bit as students skill level advances. Many tasks in school are too daunting for students to do with proficiency all at once – but when developed step by step with the aid of scaffolding the skill level can grow until no scaffolding is required… (Scaffolding)

8. Every phenomenon – atoms, the solar system, virus infection, oxygen transport in the body … we have learned as concepts. The idea that I have of atomic structure in my conceptual model of an atom. Evidence tells me that there exist small particles of different substances – but I can never see them in detail – all I can know is my conceptual model of what I think atoms are like. Scientific research is about refining our conceptual models as new evidence becomes available. My understanding of the atom when I was in high school has been greatly enhanced by new discoveries and research. It is essential to understand science as a continual refinement of ideas. We must adapt out conceptual model when further evidence tells up that our old model was not complete. ( Conceptual Models)

9. Start each unit with clear learning objectives - Dont try to "cover" everything - Having limited objectives that are learnable in the time you have produces better learning than "throwing the book" at the students. Revisit learning objectives with a series of different activities and at different times in the school year to reinforce the learning. Don’t fool yourself with open notes tests – they do not promote learning. Just because one student in the class can answer a concept question – does not mean that everyone understanding the idea – (but this false assumption guides many classroom questioning sessions.)

10. Use a variety of activities in teaching: group learning, labs, problem solving, guided note taking, reading, writing... make each kid accountable each day ... no one is permitted to sit idly and choose not to work. Frequent tests and quizzes are more helpful than great huge unit exams