Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning: Three Basics to Improve Teaching

“Well, I don’t really know much about how a car runs,” the mechanic explains, “but I do have a garage full of tools that I know how to use. One of them will probably do the trick.”

Would you trust your car to this repairperson? What if you were given a similar explanation by a plumber? a pharmacist? a surgeon?

We expect experts to have more than a collection of tools; we expect them to have an understanding of what they need to accomplish so they can tailor their actions accordingly. An air pump, while a useful tool for certain tasks, will do little good if used to address an oil leak.

Similarly, teachers need more than a collection of teaching methods. They need to understand learning. Knowing how people learn increases a teacher’s intentionality, the capacity to design instruction that fits both the material and the learners.

What, then, are some basics of learning that every school leader and teacher should know? Here are three starter principles:

Memorization ≠ Learning: It amazes me how many times teachers argue that memorization equals learning and offer the times table as proof. Let’s imagine that a child memorizes the times table but never understands the concept of multiplication (same-sized groups being combined and the total items tabulated) nor the pattern that calls for multiplication as a solution (same-sized groups needing to be combined to determine a total). Of what value, beyond the teacher’s timed tests, will having memorized the times table be? The student will not understand what he is doing when answering multiplication questions from memory, nor will he be able to ever use multiplication to solve word or real-world problems. Yes, some elements need to be memorized, but equating memorization with authentic learning is a mistake, because…

The brain constructs learning. “We often talk of knowledge as though it could be divorced from thinking, as though it could be gathered up by one person and given to another in the form of a collection of sentences to remember,” explains Richard Paul. “When we talk in this way we forget that knowledge, by its very nature, depends on thought. Knowledge is produced by thought, analyzed by thought, comprehended by thought, organized, evaluated, maintained, and transformed by thought. Knowledge exists, properly speaking, only in minds that have comprehended it and constructed it through thought.” To learn, the brain labels and sorts incoming data, seeks patterns within it, and recalls prior experiences related to it. The new data and the prior experiences are then blended to construct understanding. Unless we engage students in thinking about new material, they will not learn. And they will lack the ability to use new knowledge because…

Authentic learning empowers transfer. Students transfer learning when they use it outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, transfer rarely occurs. According to Eric Jensen, the “abysmal failure of students to transfer learning from school subjects to real life…cuts across age, IQ, and social status.” What contributes to a student’s ability to use knowledge in widened or varied contexts? “The first factor that influences successful transfer is degree of mastery of the original subject,” conclude Bransford, Brown, and Cocking. “Without an adequate level of initial learning, transfer cannot be expected. This point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked…Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures."

Understanding learning involves more than comprehending these three principles, and neurocognitive researchers are uncovering new insights almost every day. However, even basic knowledge of learning influences instructional decisions. Teachers who grow in their understanding of learning develop more than a cache of instructional methods. They increase in intentionality. They are able to design instruction that fosters authentic learning. They know why they do what they do, and they know why what they do achieves the goal: student learning.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 41, 43.
Jensen, E., Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 20.
Paul, R., “The State of Critical Thinking Today: The Need for a Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking,” retrieved December 2006 from http://www.criticalthinking.org/resources/articles/the-state-ct-today.shtml.

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