Reflections on Learning, Knowing and Understanding

It’s a new semester! It feels strange that this will be my last semester at SI, but in a way I suppose it’s a very suitable time to be taking SI 643: Professional Practice.

This blog will serve as a place to reflect on weekly readings, but I’m sure that as it evolves (and as I shine it up a bit with a nice theme, etc.), it will also become a place for reflections on things beyond the scope of specific readings. I haven’t written so frequently in a public/online setting in a few years now, so I’m interested to see how my blog-writing muscles do/don’t rebound.

For our first set of 643 readings, we were assigned the first two chapters of How People Learn.

Chapter One walks us though some of the ways that converging research from cognitive science and other fields has started to guide and inform educational practice. I think it’s probably true that we can only say started to inform, since whether we are talking about education or medicine, there’s often a multi-year gap between research that points to best practices and those principles actually making it into ground-level real-life practice. Medical or educational practice are taking place within a host of institutional and cultural structures and patterns, and change isn’t easy.

One of the earlier main points of the chapter is this:

“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom…

“Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.”

Although I have limited experience in a classroom as an instructor, I have quite a lot of experience (in and outside a designated classroom) as a learner. This rings intuitively true, as my eyes tend to glaze over when I’m presented with a topic that I cannot seem to connect to my current life, interests, or anything else which creates more of a context within which for me to fit the new information. However, often once I start to learn and connect dots to things I already know, I have a sudden experience of feeling like positively everything is related. This often comes from either specific actual connections or analogies that I am now able to make between systems or concepts within fields that at first seemed disparate to me.

One of the problems here, though, seems to be how to really get at the ideas, prior experiences, and potential mis-conceptions that students/learners bring to the table with them when learning something new. We can do pre-tests to try to get a feel for a baseline of factual knowledge, but the things we’re asking about might not touch upon the misperception. And often, just by the nature of misperceptions, the person having them does not realize they are false! So… they wouldn’t know to ask for help or clarification. Is discussion a more effective route to uncovering a more full picture of background knowledge and experience?  What about for those learners who are not as comfortable speaking up in front of people?

The authors of How People Learn have this to say. I wouldn’t disagree with it, but I think that it only gets us part-way to solving this tricky dilemma:

 The roles for assessment must be expanded beyond the traditional concept of testing. The use of frequent formative assessment helps make students’  thinking visible to themselves, their peers, and their teacher. This provides feedback that can guide modification and refinement in thinking. Given the goal of learning with understanding, assessments must tap under- standing rather than merely the ability to repeat facts or perform isolated skills.

Making one’s thinking more visible can be very useful, but it can also feel really threatening. For example, I often write or sketch to work through ideas.  I often work through ideas via conversation. But in an era of easy replicability, there’s the risk that once my line of thinking becomes more visible, both I and others will recognize mis-steps. I’m not an insecure person, but it still doesn’t feel very good to think that if my thoughts (right-on or mis-guided) are visible to more than just myself and my instructor, they may open me up to criticism that I’m not ready for. This happens on blogs/online all the time.

I’m sure that many smart people have considered this question before, but I’m interested to know what others may have come up with as an answer.

In Chapter Two of How People Learn,  the authors talk about differences between experts and novices — although they use specific examples, like chess novices vs. masters, the concepts are applicable to various fields.

What I find particularly interesting is that the ability to recognize not just patterns but meaningful patterns (and surely, past experience helps someone distinguish which patterns might be significant), a person is able to chunk and organize information in a particular way.  This way of organizing actually seems to shift perception — if we understand structures and what is more or less important, it would seem that we could more effectively focus our attention onto what matters most.


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