The Guardian has an interactive experience waiting for anyone wanting to know more about World War I. Combining multiple forms of media, it is quite the visual interactive. Where was this when I was learning about WWI in History class? A global guide to the first world war – interactive documentary is an example of how to put knowledge in the hands of students in a way that will engage them. Would it reach everyone? Maybe not, but I would wager it is more compelling than an hour-long lecture on the subject. And I get to control the pace.
Have you ever caught yourself day-dreaming, or just zoning out while someone else is talking? Be honest. Has it happened during a casual conversation? You’re looking right at a person and your mind wanders. I’ve done it, and I’ve even had really great ideas while doing so. However, I should be coming up with great ideas in moments I create for myself to day-dream, rather than during a conversation with someone.
If this happens during a regular conversation, what happens during a lecture, where you are all but forced to do nothing but listen? Listening is good — it is an acquired skill. It is more than hearing because it requires our brains to process information. Doesn’t processing suggest we should be doing something with that information, though? What are we doing with it?
The lecture seems to rely on note-taking as the “doing” in this situation, but is that enough? There are plenty of note-taking strategies, but another strategy should be incorporated — active learning. Questions, partner work, and collaborative activities engage students and help them do something with the information they are trying to move from short-term to long-term memory.
Lectures have a place, as I’ve said before, but we need to craft a better structure for them and integrate some active learning to makes sure students are actually learning, and not just running out of gas half way down the road.
An article was recently released from Edudemic with the title “Do You Know The 4 Stages Of Learning?” What is represented in this article is a thought process and practice for learning. The example given is for a reading lesson or assignment, but the stages can be applied to any learning situation and any content area. The Learning Process series I wrote covered how we learn in general. This article by Edudemic covers learning in terms of strategies. There are many strategies out there that can be employed by both learner and teacher. However, how we approach the introduction and integration of those strategies is what is most important. As an example, there are many apps, so to go through them all and dig in deep would be nearly impossible. What we can do instead is highlight a few useful apps as examples and discuss how to use them and how to discern which apps are worth the time.
While the infographic below is simple, it still requires some thinking to pull in the objectives at the bottom into the Before/During/After section at the top. A brief breakdown of the four stages, combined with their objective:
- Declarative – identifying learning strategies (what they look like and what they’re called)
- Procedural – how to use learning strategies (inputting your knowledge into a strategy to increase understanding)
- Conditional – when to use learning strategies (applying a learning strategy that will best enhance the learning process)
- Metacognitive – understanding why a learning strategy is employed (how has your learning increased or changed due to the strategy?)
With the reading examples given, different learning strategies are used, and the four stages can be applied to each area of the example. Before reading, the preview involves different learning strategies. The four stages would be applied to those learning strategies as they are used to preview, question, and predict. Note that the reflective, or metacognitive process can take place along the way or at the end depending on the learner and the structure of the content.
One glaringly obvious piece of this that I want to point out is the inclusion of student/learner questioning throughout the process. Learners must be allowed to ask questions. That is how they interpret what they are experiencing. Assimilation is almost never perfect, so to resolve anomalies or misunderstandings as we add and modify our schema, we must ask questions, re-evaluate, and ask more questions. The teacher can help a learner with these stages of learning, but the student can help him/herself by asking questions.
Part 5: Refinement
This is the part where you kick back and revel in the laurels bestowed upon your great work. Oops. Not just yet. Now the real work begins. As long as the motivation holds up, learning continues to happen. When you apply or use your knowledge and understanding (see part 4), you should receive feedback. Some feedback may be self-imposed in terms of your own metacognition, and other feedback may be external, coming from the medium you are working in (such as adaptive feedback software) or people who have input based on their interactions with you. Feedback is a multi-layered issue with myths aplenty, so I won’t go in-depth for the sake of the focus of this post and series.
Refining what you know and what you do helps you to continue making improvements, both in practical physical skills (if they apply) and in cognitive capabilities based on acquired knowledge. Perhaps information you gleaned and used did not pan out, so you take the results of the use and redirect them to altering your future uses of the information. This is a cycle that will continue as long as you want it to as a learner. Gilman points out that tracking your progress can be a good way of setting bar higher for yourself as you move forward. It helps you know when you’ve reached your limit and when you can push a bit harder. From a teaching perspective, this might warrant some further investigation into Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Read Saul McLeod’s post about it.
It is worth noting, as Gilman did, that the process of refinement and feedback need to change from time to time. While red ink on the draft of a paper might be tried-and-true, mixing it up a bit might provide the giver of feedback and the learner more perspective. Maybe the draft needs to be chunked instead of dealt with all at once. Maybe it could be blown up poster size, cut into sentence strips, or read aloud and recorded. Sometimes hearing it back can give you the “ah ha!” moment you’ve been looking for. Be creative, and let the learner be creative in searching for ways to better their ideas and attempts in learning. This is how we grow as learners instead of stagnating as knowers.
Part 4: Use
While I’m sure there can be plenty said about this step, Gilman is short on explanation. This might be because it is the most natural part. Doing something is what we want. From the time we are children, we look at someone doing something or read about an idea and we want to put into action. We want to be in the middle of it. Perhaps that’s why my nephew wants to grab the plastic tee-ball bat from my hand when I try to show him how to hold it. He’s only three, so we have to take that into account, but his attention span is just such that he will watch for only a moment before he has to get his hands on the bat and swing for the ball. He wants to do it himself!
After you’ve put in the work through motivation, immersion, and integration, though, you want to be sure and handle the use delicately. Too much too soon can turn you off. Like with the other pieces, failure is good, but overwhelming failure in a short time can be damaging. You will see situations in which you can use your knowledge and understanding to solve a problem or accomplish a task — either by design or by accident. Seizing these opportunities is good, but focusing on certain details instead of everything at once can help prevent burnout.
Just as with motivation, you want to bite off just enough to stoke the fire without smothering it. The fire of learning and understanding in the application process will spread to other areas of your brain and help you develop a more full mental map of the concepts and processes involved.
Doing is important. With sufficient integration of your knowledge, you can begin applying and doing with success. After laying the groundwork, students need to use what they’ve learned to further their understanding and broaden its scope. By doing, we can then move on to the last piece — refinement.
Part 3: Integration
You’re motivated. You’ve immersed yourself in content in different forms. Now you’re approaching the upper threshold of your cognitive load. You can’t cram any more new information in until you find a way to organize the information you’ve been ingesting. Now you need to digest and synthesize, according to Gilman.
Before you can finish with the last few pieces of this learning puzzle, you must make sense of the pieces you’ve already turned over and begun to put together. Your brain needs to make associations with the absorbed information and what you already know. In some cases, you will need to find new places for the information to exist, or assimilate it. These connections and compartmentalizations can most easily happen if your brain is not fully focused on all of the information you’ve been taking in until now. That is the source of the overload. Less cognitively stressing activities will help to free and relax your mind and help it make associations where it may not have originally looked. General exercise, like going for a walk, or experiencing something new can trigger associations and connections in your mind.
As the process of association progresses, you begin to ask questions about the final pieces of the puzzle you know are missing in a continued effort to understand the concept/problem as a whole. According to Gilman, this is a subtle transition from right-brained to left-brained activity. The results of the shift, such as asking questions and organizing the information even more rigorously, are more important, I think, than the concept of which half of the brain you use. While there is some credibility to each half of the brain having certain cognitive characteristics, that may be all they are. You can find out more about the left and right brain and their use in the classroom here. For some perspective on the lack of scientific validity held by the concept of left-brained versus right-brained people, read this article from Psychology Today.
In all of this, you must still be sufficiently motivated to step outside of the flood of information and let your mind wander. You must be motivated to continue once you’ve made connections. It isn’t enough for students to read books, watch videos, and check online sources. They must make connections between that material and what they already know. Without the associations, the information will fall by the wayside and become a footnote in their learning. How can we make sure they are integrating the information into their thinking and understanding? DISCUSSION. I apologize for the caps, but I believe they are needed here. Students acting as silos of information will become overwhelmed and lose motivation. They will stop because it is too much to handle. They will need others — students and teachers — for asking a questions and to be sound boards for their ideas. Discussions will have to happen. Relying on just your ideas and thinking will only get you so far. Even Albert Einstein created The Olympia Academy to discuss ideas with fellow scientists leading up to his great theories. If Einstein needed it, then we certainly do! We all need to discuss issues. Turn on the faucet and let the ideas flow and the connections begin. As they do, we’ll be more prepared for the next stage of learning.
At the beginning of each of these subsequent posts in this five-part series about the learning process as described by Robert Gilman, I want to make sure and reference the original article.
Read the previous post — Part 1: Motivation — if you haven’t had a chance.
Part 2: Immersion
Now that you’re motivated, where to begin? How do you begin learning about a topic/subject/concept? With most tasks, we would attempt to create a checklist or set of steps that could define our journey — one step at a time — toward understanding. With certain basic types of knowledge transfer, like baking chocolate chip cookies or finding the refraction index of a specific substance, we can do that. We look up the information (thank you, Internet), and voila! We have delicious cookies to eat. However, with more complex issues, we must take a different approach.
For instance, if you wanted to learn about astronomy and view the night sky, you would need to compile more resources. But where would you begin? Even if you found a starting place, would you simply read an entire book before moving on to watch a video? Down the line, when you have specific tasks to complete, you can institute that linear model, but when you don’t know what you don’t know, you need to surround yourself with resources of your choosing. In Gilman’s terms, you need to immerse yourself in the content. How you do that is up to you, because no one else is more qualified to determine the boundaries of your understanding than you are.
Gilman’s metaphor for this is putting together a puzzle. When you dump the pieces out on the table, you don’t try and line them all up in the right spot and then start putting them together. You turn them over one by one and begin making associations and connections. You may look for edge pieces first, or just go for prominent parts of the image that you recognize from your limited understanding of the whole (i.e. the box cover). This is what we do with a complex issue in our learning. We bounce around engaging in content absorption how and when we are most comfortable doing so. We immerse ourselves in the learning. We change the rate at which we consume information, the resources we use, the medium through which we learn, and much more.
As an example, I have become interested in Astronomy. How long that will last, I don’t know, but in the meantime, I am trying to learn all that I can. This will all lead up to the building of a telescope (hopefully). I can’t just start building a telescope. If I did, I would have a piece of equipment I know nothing about. Most likely, I wouldn’t build it correctly, even following the instructions, simply because my level of understanding about how it works and what I can do with it is so limited. Therefore, I am immersing myself in understanding some things about Astronomy, some about telescopes and their constituent parts, and some extraneous things I’ve noticed along the way. I need to remember not to pressure myself, but I am not just doing one thing at a time in a logical manner that will eventually bring me to a place of being an expert. Here are some of the resources I have used so far:
- Library book on building a telescope (discusses background, physics behind it, etc.)
- Videos online about stars, astronomical events, etc.
- iPad apps looking at stars, celestial events, and so on
- Looking at free online Astronomy courses and their resources
I switch back and forth between different resources as I need. I am engaging multiple senses that operate at a capacity unique to me and my learning preferences. The skills I already have are being put to use in the best possible way. The learning is dispersed amongst those skills, instead of me neglecting certain ones to follow a prescribed path. As I do this, I am getting a better view of the puzzle. The pieces are coming together as I leverage the skills and capabilities I have.
Do we let our students immerse themselves in the learning? Are we too quick to try and give them a list of tasks with instructions before they are ever ready? Consider the type of learning being done and the content involved. Then, let the students have choice and some freedom in their approach. Let them experience immersion as they will, so that their learning is self-driven and so that they come out of it with considerably more knowledge and understanding than before. With that, they can proceed to Part 3 and begin to integrate that learning through application.