The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught. It seems like such a narrow definition for something that is such a profound human ability. Everyone is different, and everyone learns differently.
Our understanding of the mind and of learning has been pretty elusive throughout the last few centuries. It is surprisingly hard to study such a complex process, and we’ve lacked the powerful research tools that are necessary to accomplish the task (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2010). However, as we’ve developed new technologies and methods in the 21st century, a window has been opened wider on just HOW we learn and the differences in what makes someone an expert versus a novice.
Three of the characteristics an expert has, that a novice does not, are the abilities to develop meaningful patterns of information, to organize knowledge in meaningful ways, and to contextualize their knowledge (Bransford et al., 2010). What this means to me is that experts are much more advanced in their overall ability to process new information. They are able to see patterns in new information, and place all related information into new groups. They then use those groups to contextualize their learning and relate it to other things they might have already learned. Novices do not have many of these abilities.
Looking back on my own schooling, I’ve actually experienced this firsthand. I’ve been studying French since 6th grade. My main study habit when I was in middle and high school was to take lists of vocabulary words and try to memorize them. I would do the same with abstract grammatical concepts. It was always enough to get me through the quickly approaching test, but I was never able to transfer them from short-term to long-term memory. It wasn’t until I got to college, and had a professor that insisted we contextualize whatever it was we were trying to study, that I was finally able to remember a word or a concept months down the line. Instead of lists of vocabulary, we would have a picture (e.g. a kitchen, or a playground) and we would try to describe the picture. Instead of a list of grammar rules, we would learn them in context. We never learned anything in isolation, and I have since taken that to heart in my own teaching practice. I’ve never once given my students a list of vocabulary to take home and study, or an abstract grammatical concept without first framing it in a sentence or mini conversation.
Experts can show up in any profession, from chess players to physicists to teachers. I had a profound moment while reading chapter 2 from our book (How People Learn) when I realized that I am most likely NOT an expert teacher. Perhaps I will be one day, and I like to think I do follow some best practice (like the contextualizing and chunking I mentioned above), but I need to spend more time in the classroom in order to understand different situations and their implications. Are there ways I could improve instruction? Is a classroom behavior going on in the corner that needs to be addressed? Has one of my students checked out? I feel like these are answers that can only be found after spending many years in the classroom getting used to picking out (or noticing, as Bransford et al., 2010 would say) all the little nuances that typically occur when I am too focused on teaching the content.
As we’ve progressed in our ability to understand the mind and learning, new implications for education have developed (Bransford et al., 2010). How can we teach in a way that supports learning, understanding, and conceptual change? How can we push the aforementioned novices to become experts? From all I’ve learned over the last week, there are many ways to teach that support learning and understanding, but I’m very passionate about one in particular.
Connected learning is an approach to addressing inequity in education in ways geared to a networked society (Ito, et al., 2012). It is a teaching approach that encourages using content that is student interest-driven and connected to the student’s peer culture to promote success academically and in life. This is an important approach to consider in a program that focuses on educational technology, as technology tends to tie in really well with student interests and their peer culture. I’ve never had more interest in a class then when I encourage my students to use their technology to get on social media accounts and communicate with one another in French. They get to use something that is relevant to their interests and peers, and I get to watch them practice (and sometimes even learn more) French! It’s such a total win/win.
Bransford, J., Brown, A.L. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368
Ito, M., et al. (2012). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Retrieved from https://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/ConnectedLearning_summary.pdf
Learning [Def. 1]. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries Online, Retrieved July 14, 2017, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/citation