This is my own summary of the first chapter on the list. I highly recommend the entire book, which is available for free from the National Academies Press. It was written in 2000 but it contains some great foundational information.
Chapter 1: “Learning: From Speculation to Science,” from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking.
The current methods we use to deliver learning have been shaped by research within the field of education, as well as related fields. In recent decades, teachers and researchers have discovered approaches that assist the learner in understanding and retaining new information. Learning professionals now design curricula from a perspective that is more focused on the learner’s needs. Research related to child development, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience has molded the current approach to early education, and has influenced how emerging technology is incorporated into the learning experience.
In the past, there was less focus on the teaching of critical thinking skills, as well as the abilities to express concepts persuasively, and solve problems requiring complex thought. Learning experiences were focused on developing basic literacy in fields such as reading and mathematics. Today, humanity’s knowledge is increasing at a faster rate due to globalization and rapid development of technology. It is still important that learners develop fundamental understanding of certain subjects, but that is not enough. Learners must be taught to self-sustain, meaning they must learn on their own by asking meaningful questions. Using new teaching methods will help instructors connect with those who were once considered “difficult” students. New teaching methods will also provide a deeper knowledge of complex subjects to the majority of learners.
There has been extensive research regarding how to teach traditional subjects, such as writing skills, with a non-traditional approach. These research efforts date back to the nineteenth century and have influenced a new school of behaviorism, which in turn led to changes in how psychological research is performed.
Learning is now thought of as a process to form connections between stimuli and responses. For instance, hunger may drive an animal or person to learn the tasks or skills necessary to relieve hunger. Even if complex trial and error is required to learn a skill, we will perform whatever process is necessary, as long as the reward we seek is desirable enough to warrant the effort.
Cognitive science approaches the study of learning in a multi-disciplinary fashion, incorporating research from many fields and using many tools and methodologies to further research. Qualitative research methods complement and expand earlier experimental research efforts. An important objective within this research is to better understand what it means to understand a topic. Traditionally, the learner’s ability to memorize is assessed in order to determine competency. While knowledge is necessary in order to solve problems, facts must be connected to each other in order for the learner to draw conclusions. An organized framework of concepts and ideas will give the learner the context necessary to solve problems and establish long-term retention.
Our prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts influence how we organize and interpret new information. We exist in an environment that consists of competing stimuli, and we must choose which stimuli to focus on based on what has been important or meaningful to us in the past. Therefore, it’s important that our foundational knowledge be accurate. Incomplete and inaccurate thinking needs to be challenged and corrected early so that the learner doesn’t build upon which is essentially a weak foundation of knowledge. For example, it’s common to believe our personal experience of physical or biological phenomena represents a complete and correct knowledge of that phenomena, when in fact we need more information in order to understand what we’ve experienced.
It’s important that learners have some control over their learning process so they have the opportunity to gauge their own understanding of the topics being taught. The ability to self-assess and reflect on areas of improvement leads to metacognition, which is the ability of a person to predict their own performance on various tasks and monitor current levels of mastery and understanding. Learning can be reinforced through internal dialog, meaning a learner may choose to compare new information with old information, explain information to themselves, and look for areas where they fail to comprehend what has been taught. Teaching a learner how to monitor their own learning is therefore a worthwhile investment in the building of deep knowledge. An active learner is more able to transfer skills to new problems and challenges.
The difference between a novice and an expert within a subject matter is the depth of knowledge commanded by the expert. Depth of knowledge allows a person to recognize patterns, relationships, and discrepancies that a less experienced or knowledgeable person might miss. An expert has a better conceptual framework, and is able to better analyze what information they need to draw forward in their memory to solve a problem. Understanding what information is relevant to a problem is key, because it allows a person to focus only on the information they need at that moment. This makes the problem less complex.
In order to build understanding within a subject, a teacher may provide in-depth understanding of a few specific topics, rather than giving a superficial overview of many topics. This allows learners to better digest defining concepts. Assessments must reinforce this model by providing instructors with an understanding of the learner’s thought processes and testing in-depth, rather than superficial, knowledge.
Learners should be encouraged to reflect on what has been learned before going on to additional topics in order to support metacognition. Teachers should be encouraged to consider the many tools and methodologies available to present new information, and select what is best for the learner and topic. Building a community of learners who work together and accept failure will allow individuals to take risks and challenge themselves in the classroom. There is no one “right” way to design a classroom environment – but there are ways that are more effective than others depending on the learner’s culture and expectations, and how competence is defined.
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