27 January 2013

Children Cannot Be Taught, But They Can Learn

Children are not taught, they learn. How well and how much they will learn depends upon the skills that they master, long before they are aware that they are learning. Whether or not they have the chance to master those skills depends upon their caretakers.

Even the best of us is limited in what we can learn and what we can conceive. Such limitations applied to Albert Einstein and they apply to you, and your dangerous child. But all of us can learn ways to push against our limits, if we wish. Most people never come close.


The video above, "Cognitive Limits," is a useful introduction to the cognitive science of attention, memory, and learning.

Concepts of "Attention and Memory" are key to understanding how a relatively inexperienced and ignorant human infant can develop into a skilled walking and talking toddler who is into everything he can reach, learning and remembering as he goes.

Everyone is limited in what he can hold in his short-term working memory -- some more limited than others. Likewise, each person is limited as to how many active thinking processes he can maintain simultaneously -- how many dynamic activities he can keep track of.

Brief intro. to Cognitive Load Theory:
In essence, cognitive load theory proposes that since working memory is limited, learners may be bombarded by information and, if the complexity of their instructional materials is not properly managed, this will result in a cognitive overload. This cognitive overload impairs schema acquisition, later resulting in a lower performance (Sweller, 1988). Cognitive load theory had a theoretical precedence in the educational and psychological literature, well before Sweller’s 1988 article (e.g. Beatty, 1977; Marsh, 1978). Even Baddeley and Hitch (1974) considered “concurrent memory load” but Sweller’s cognitive load theory was among the first to consider working memory, as it related to learning and the design of instruction...

...Schema acquisition is the ultimate goal of cognitive load theory. Anderson’s ACT framework proposes initial schema acquisition occurs by the development of schema-based production rules, but these production rules may be developed by one of two methods (Anderson, Fincham, & Douglass, 1997), either by developing these rules during practice or by studying examples. The second method (studying examples) is the most cognitively efficient method of instruction (Sweller & Chandler, 1985; Cooper and Sweller, 1987; Paas and van Merriënboer, 1993). This realization became one of the central tenets of cognitive load theory.

Once learners have acquired a schema, those patterns of behavior (schemas) may be practiced to promote skill automation (Anderson, 1982; Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller, 2003; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977; Sweller, 1993) but expertise occurs much later in the process, and is when a learner automates complex cognitive skills (Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977), usually via problem solving. _Cognitive Load Theory


Reference examples for the deeply interested who have a research bent:

Cognitive Bottleneck in Multitasking (PDF)

Dynamic Competition and the Cognitive Bottleneck (PDF)

Advanced educators not only try to introduce useful "schemas" to the learner -- they also try to choose conceptual schemas that will be useful in multiple contexts:
Students do not automatically connect, apply, or extrapolate what they know to other learning contexts. So what foundations can we put in place to ensure we are dong the best we can to nurture conceptual understanding and seek its transfer to new contexts? Here is my attempt to map out a few strategies that work for me:
  1. Make transfer the big goal of conceptual teaching and learning – always have ideas in mind about how students can transfer their conceptual understandings and skills to new contexts.
  2. Concepts over content – think big picture not activities. The exploration of concepts during collaborative teacher planning sessions will lead to a multitude of activities that can be applied in the classroom – the activities will always take care of themselves!
  3. Less is more – working with fewer conceptual understandings means that you can use and extend the knowledge and skills students present in a meaningful, formative way – be mindful.
  4. Prior knowledge – Take the time to nurture student’s interest and avenues into the concepts you are teaching.
  5. Authentic assessment – map out the formative and summative assessment opportunities that are likely to arise through the teaching and learning experiences. Through these opportunities, challenge student’s misconceptions, stereotypes and tendencies toward rigid thinking.
  6. Levels of transfer – transfer can happen on a “near” level where contexts can be very similar, or transfer can happen on a “far” level where the context is more abstract and removed from the original learning, some learners are natural abstract thinkers, others are not.
  7. Think discriminatively – be measured about when opportunities arise for students to apply transfer, be mindful about when you can make it happen authentically, create opportunities for success and not failure.
  8. Value thinking, nurture it and make it visible – train and engage students in a variety of daily thinking routines, use Socratic questioning in discussions to connect new ideas with existing knowledge. Metacognition, metacognition, metacognition!!
  9. Nurture the potential of transfer in younger students – (EY- G1) value and reflect upon the meaning of children’s connections in collaboration with others. Make children’s connections visible and a part of discussion for other learners.
  10. Homework – getting students to apply what they are learning in class and explore the meaning of concepts to their own lives can provide rich and diverse opportunities for transfer. Infinitely more valuable than completing worksheets!
_Conceptual Learning in Classroom
In terms of modern classroom educational practise, many of these ideas are more useful than a lot of what one sees -- if they are ever applied in anything but the rare, ideal classroom setting, which is unlikely.

More commonly, the best of theoretical intentions go badly awry when the rubber meets the road. This is particularly true when the masses of teachers attempt to implement the conceptual ideas and schemas of theorists, most of which they themselves only vaguely comprehend.

Remember: The teacher does not teach. Instead, the learner learns. If the learner's mind is not structured and ready to learn the concept for the day, it will not matter how well the teacher has prepared his lesson.

The learning mind must be "empowered" from the earliest age, and continuously reinforced -- until it is the child himself who is doing the reinforcing. This self-reinforcement occurs at different ages for different children -- even under the most ideal conditions. Young Mozart, for example, required much less external reinforcement to achieve a given level of mastery than did young Salieri.

So far, we have skipped around one of the central issues: how to learn difficult concepts which do not come naturally to most children. We know that boosting self-esteem doesn't work for that. We know that paying a cash reward doesn't work. Even the promise of sensory pleasure and euphoric mind states are limited in how well they will expand the learner's conceptual grasp, within apparently innate cognitive and conceptual limits.

But we must learn to walk before we learn to run a marathon up a mountain. This is a blog, not a textbook. Our approach will necessarily seem a bit scattered and of variable depth. Readers may choose to stop reading and abandon the quest at any time, without penalty.

That is not necessarily the case for those who work at the Al Fin Dangerous Child Institute.

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1 Comments:

Blogger sykes.1 said...

Finally, I came to understand that I was not teaching anybody anything. What I was doing, or was supposed to do, was provide structure, direction, discipline and feedback.

Towards the end, many of my students (civil/environmental engineers) were passive, some not even taking notes. The MTV generation. What sort of engineers they will be worries me.

Monday, 28 January, 2013  

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