Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Powerful Learning

What do we know about learning? What can we do to create powerful learning? This small readable book by Ron Brandt ( past editor of the ascd) draws upon findings from psychology and research to describe the conditions that promote learning.

Why schools don't implement such ideas is the real problem.

Learning, the introduction of the book, says is an ambiguous term. All forms of life learn - that is, they change their behaviour on the basis of experience.

This book, by Ron Brandt, focuses on creating the conditions for more complex learning - or 'powerful learning'. Young children learn to walk and talk through a natural process of trial and error and some accomplished artists and musicians are described as self taught. People can solve problems and make scientific discoveries without being directed by a teacher.

Some educators, the book states,are sometimes intrigued by the contrast between traditional school practices and the way learning takes place in other settings.

New research now offers teachers the information to make learning more meaningful for all their students.

The following are presented as guidelines for teachers who want to create powerful learners.

1 People learn what is personally meaningful to them. The search for meaning is innate. Problem based learning, or experience, or project based learning, where students investigate real problems, is a means to achieve this in the classroom. In other words people learn when they want to learn. When 'engaged', and if goals are achievable, they will extend effort and will also be appreciative of guided practice. Teachers are advised to tap into students interests and questions and ensure the tasks they negotiate are of optimal novelty and difficulty.

2 People learn when they are accept challenging but achievable goals. There is no limit to growth and educators must not underestimate what students can do. All students have greater potential for learning than is commonly recognised. Students learn more actively when they are challenged to reach for high goals, when teachers demonstrate confidence in their students, and when they are provided the necessary 'scaffolding'. Challenge is tricky as it is only effective if the learner accepts the challenge.

3 Learning is developmental. Because there are predetermined sequences of mental development in children individual and age differences need to taken into account. All learners move along 'novice' to expert' continuum; with new experiences learners may need more concrete step by step assistance. When some expertise is gained they need to be encouraged to show initiative and creativity.

4 Individuals learn differently. Every human brain is uniquely organised and all students make use of different strategies, approaches,and capabilities. The research of Howard Gardner ( 'multiple intelligences') indicates there is no such thing a single general intelligence; 'one size does not fit all'.Teachers need to be expert in 'negotiating' the curriculum with their students, to value students questions,and to provide a growing degree of student choice and control.

5 People 'construct' knowledge by building on their previous ideas. They learn through recognising patterns and their learning is not aways orderly because learning can be 'messy' and intuitive. All learners encounter new learning they 'construct' their knowledge but only if it makes senes to them. Teachers assist this process by challenging students views and/or by introducing material that conflicts with their current ideas. This approach to learning is called 'constructivism' and values acknowledging students 'prior' knowledge; the ideas, attitudes and skills the children bring with them to any learning situation

6 Much learning occurs through social interaction. The most radical of all the 'new ideas' is that the brain is a social brain and learns by relating to, and learning from, the views of others. Teachers need to create their classroom as 'communities of inquiry' where students work together to share ideas to continually negotiate meaning. This social interaction , or teamwork, is a valuable future disposition in the work force.

7 People need feedback to learn. Positive social interaction and respectful relationships allow teachers to provide positive feedback to learners. Students need feedback about the accuracy and relevance of their thoughts and actions. It is vital for feedback to be accurate, timely, and useful. Learners need to know what changes might help.

8 Successful learning involves the use of strategies - which themselves are learned.Learning is both a conscious and a unconscious process. People can learn 'how to learn' by sharing aims, planning targets, and reviewing achievement. Self management ( 'meta cognition' - becoming aware of their own thinking) is critical. Students can be 'coached' to think ahead, to envision possible steps, to reflect on their own progress ( self assessment) and to consider what they might do 'next time'. Future learners need a repertoire of strategies to call upon and to be able to use them effectively ( In NZ our 'new' curriculum calls these capacities 'Key Competencies'). 'Knowing what to do when you don't know what to do' will be a valuable future attribute in changing times and requires that students feel confident enough to act on their intuitions. People learn such capacities unconsciously by picking up on the 'messages' of the class culture as valued and modeled by the teacher.

9 A positive emotional climate strengthens learning. Thinking and learning is closely associated with our emotional well being. Motivation to learn is influenced by the individuals mental state. Positive emotions enhance memory and is associated with curiosity, excitement, laughter, enjoyment, and appreciation. This however does not argue against an orderly and supportive environment as learners need to feel safe so as to be able to take learning risks. Students need to feel their views and questions matter.

10 Learning is influenced by the total environment. Students absorb the values underpinning the class and so educators need to attend to all aspects of the setting - physical, social,and psychological. Our brains are continually monitoring the environment to 'see' if it supportive to our learning, picking up on the attitudes and actions of teachers.

The above guidelines are probably too abstract to be very helpful and educators need to think about them, elaborate them, and then apply them to their own circumstances. The conditions apply as much to teacher and school learning as it does to students and all are intertwined and need to be implemented holistically.

The book concludes that research, and creative schools, shows that these beliefs do work but only if they are shared by all and integrated into the culture of the school.

If we are to develop our students as 'confident, connected life, energetic and enterprising life-long learners' able to be their own 'seekers, users and creators', schools need to develop themselves as 'learning communities'.

This you would have thought, is what schools ought to be.


Anonymous said...

Plenty of rhetoric but a litte reality when it comes to school practice?

Bruce said...

The 'status quo' has a lot of friends but I am aware of teachers who are trying to implement such common sense ideas. Such ideas were more common before the introduction of the incoherent standardized curriculums, and accountability pressures, of the 90s.