What Is Learning?

During my undergraduate career, in one of the first education classes that I took, we learned a small amount about neuroscience and how the brain forms synapse when new information is taken in. Short-term memory is turned into long-term memory is turned into understanding. Knowing what you want your students to learn is one thing. But how will they actually learn it?

Considering the actual learning process is an important step when thinking about students and teaching. First, we have to consider how we define “learning”. Do we think of learning as remembering facts, or rather, a deep understanding of a topic? Most teachers would say that they strive for the latter. In the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, learning is described as making connections to prior knowledge and understanding the relationships (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 9). So as described before, one brain synapse literally connects to another. There in lies the challenge of activating that background knowledge, making sure that knowledge is correct, and guiding students to making those lasting connections. These rich connections will then enable students to transfer their knowledge and understanding to other subject areas and problems (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 51).

It is critical for teachers to examine which methods will facilitate learning in the best way. In his article Why School? TED Ebook Author Rethinks Education When Information is Everywhere, blogger Jim Daily (2012) interviews author Will Richardson. Richardson explains that there is a shift from teachers being the conveyers of knowledge to being the facilitators of learning. “Schools were built on the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality” (Daily, 2012). Teachers should no longer expect to stand at the front of the class and lecture facts, but rather, provide the coaching and the tools that can enable students to find the information on their own. This mindset and practice puts kids in charge of their learning and the connections they are making. Running a learner-centered classroom hand in hand with the technology at our disposal can help foster metacognitive students who are positive digital citizens. (Daily, 2012).

In this new age of understanding learning combined with abundant and accessible information, educators should take a step back and consider the best 21st century way to teach and help students attain deep understanding a topic. When deep understanding is achieved and connections are understood, students are well on their way to mastering a topic. We refer to this as conditionalized knowledge. “Experts’ knowledge is ‘conditionalized’—it included a specification of the contexts in which it is useful” (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 43).  Simply stated, conditionalized knowledge means that this understanding can be easily applied to any problem or question, at any time, without having to rack one’s brain. Donovan et al point out that many forms of curricula do not enable conditionalizing because they do not facilitate making connections to the material, “students will fail to conditionalized their knowledge because they know which chapter the problems can from and so automatically use this information to decide which concepts and forms are relevant” (Donovan & Bransford & Pellegrino, 2000, p. 43). Teachers must step up to supplement this missing piece of their curriculum.

For example, teaching writing can prove difficult when students don’t have conditionalized knowledge about a writing technique. Let’s say that a 3rd grade teacher gives a lesson on how to write an accordion paragraph. That teacher then gives the students several activities over the next few days to practice writing an accordion paragraph. However, a few weeks later, the teacher notices that many of the students only write an accordion paragraph when required to do so. They do not apply their knowledge to writing at other times when “accordion paragraph” is not specified in the directions. It’s not that the students are lazy per say—it’s that their knowledge of writing an appropriate accordion paragraph is not conditionalized. They are not experts. They don’t know that this style of writing can be useful in all of their paragraphs. Having the understanding of an accordion paragraph and being able to write one when directed to do so makes these students novices. They can be called experts when they automatically apply their writing skill to any writing that they set out to do.

Technology is creating different types of learning, which means we need different types of teachers (Knobel & Lanksher, 2006). It’s key to remember that even though students interact with knowledge in different ways, the way they learn is still the same. Teachers need to keep in mind that even though students can create beautiful projects on the computer doesn’t mean that their knowledge is conditionalized. Facilitating metacognition and connecting those brain synapses remains of utmost importance, even if the means of achieving it are constantly changing.

Daily, J. (2012, September 14). Why School? TED ebook author rethinks education when information is everywhere. TED Blog. TED Blog: Further reading on ideas worth spreading. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://blog.ted.com/2012/09/14/why-school-ted-ebook-author-rethinks-education-when-information-is-everywhere/

Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (2006). Discussing New Literacies. Language Arts, 84(1), 78-86.  Retrieved June 11, 2011, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 1135586201).

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