Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning environments (more from "How Students Learn...")

Donovan and Bransford (2005) describe four types of environments, "centered on" learners, content, assessment, and community.
  1. Learner-centered environment. Here we start with what the learner knows, and help the student expand beyond that. Typically, we connect to that existing knowledge as a base, and build outward and upward. Occasionally, we have to carefully remove what was already built before building onward. Related to this, we have to provide manageable, yet challenging tasks, and give them the tools, so students feel challenged and empowered rather than hopeless and frustrated.
  2. Content- or Knowledge-centered environment. Here we begin with three questions: (i) what is important for students to know and be able to do? (ii) what are the core concepts we use for organization, and what are the case studies or detailed knowledge that embody those concepts? (iii) How will we know that students have mastered this knowledge and these concepts? Although items (i) and (iii) overlap with the Learner- and Assessment-centered approaches, item (ii) is the core. It appears critical that specific case studies be understood as exemplars of more general concepts, and that concepts provide a framework for understanding other specific cases. Here I will suggest that students understand that there are usually multiple conceptual frameworks by which we might perceive and understand a specific phenomenon. The authors contend that textbooks tend to focus on the facts and less on the conceptual frameworks. I observe that that is true for the ecology texts I am most familiar with.
  3. Assessment-centered environment. Formative assessment is essential because it makes the success and failure of learning clear to both students and teachers. Such assessments can help both students and teachers identify preconceptions, and to track change in understanding over time. Seeing this change over time helps students understand better where they are and how they got there. These assessments are tools students and teachers need to use in the service of building knowledge.
  4. Community-centered environment. In this environment, we create a place or context that rewards participation rather than correctness, because mistakes, preconceptions, and dogma are all good starting places for real learning. In addition, students are more engaged when participating, and this participation results in a positive feedback loop wherein participation begets enjoyment, enjoyment begets participation, and it all facilitates learning.

Principles of how students learn (from Donovan and Bransford (editors). 2005. How Students Learn....)

Notes to myself:

The introductory chapter of this NRC book summarizes an earlier NRC report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School.

They describe three key principles:
1. New knowledge must connect to existing knowledge already learned.
2. Facts and conceptual framework go together, hand-in-hand. A framework with facts is relatively meaningless (an empty framework) and facts without a framework make no sense, cannot be retained, or recalled.
3. Metacognition (understanding tips, tricks, and principles of learning) helps facilitate learning.

One common trap that I fall into is that I fail to appreciate what a limited experience most students students have of the natural world. Therefore, I fail to connect to their existing knowledge base. To connect this to the principles above, I fail to give students enough facts for a new conceptual framework. I assume that they already have lots of facts in hand (what a maple tree looks like, or what a sow bug acts like). What I may want to do is say or ask:
  1. "Here is a new conceptual framework, and here is how it works and what it is good for."
  2. "Here is a specific example of an empirical experiment that helped confirm the utility of this framework. This is how this example fits into this framework."
  3. "Here is another example...can you figure out how this example fits into the framework?"
  4. "Here are more examples. Go for it."
  5. "Can you find other examples?"
  6. "Can you imagine other ways to investigate the natural world using this framework?"
  7. "What do you like about this framework? What do you find confusing or frustrating about this framework?"
  8. "How might you modify this framework?"
(I might not get around to #7)