The More you Learn, the More There is to Learn

In the article Principled Practical Knowledge, Bereiter brought forth a new theory in the learning sciences that I was unfamiliar with. He challenged readers to think about the “why” in the things we do. Bereiter gives the example and compares two risotto recipes: The first one instructs chefs to add liquid and rice a little at a time and repeat until you have a creamy texture; while another recommends measuring both quantities and throwing them into the pot. These differences cause a problem. “The typical food preparation recipe, for instance, represents explicit practical knowledge but not principled knowledge. It tells us what to do, but seldom tells us why. This becomes important if we are interested in improving or simplifying a recipe” (Bereiter, 2013, p. 5). Within principled practical knowledge, there is always the desire to look for the continual improvement of practice.

“Intentional learning is the deliberate enhancement of skills and mental content. Knowledge Building is the creation and improvement of knowledge of value to one’s community. You can have intentional learning without Knowledge Building and, in principle at least, Knowledge Building without intentional learning; but the two together make a powerful combination” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2010, p. 8)

I think that the ideas brought forward in both of these articles are values to be instilled in society. I am the kind of teacher who is always looking for ways to improve my practice. I learn from and collaborating with others. This past year my professional goal was to build a strong PLN on twitter. I participated in many chats, became an active user, shared my ideas, and learned new things from others. One thing that surprised me however, was the number of times that my opinion was “challenged” during twitter chats. My first reaction was to become defensive, but ultimately retreated. I reflected a lot on why I responded that way, realized it was in fact a great experience to be faced with, and after that learned to accept it as the learning experience that it was. Having the skills to defend your opinion, listening to others, but also be accepting of the knowledge building that is taking place has been a transformational experience for me.

Scardamalia & Bereiter (2010) state that “teachers who cultivate a sense of ideas as improvable have an easier time developing a Knowledge Building community” (p. 11). Sawyer (2006) also alludes to the notion of idea improvement and their essential need in the educational realm. Through the process of iteration, students will begin to question their initial thinking. Sawyer (2006) compared two classrooms and the effects of learning: The “regular” classroom stated that the more they learn and understand, the less there is be learned and understood; whereas the knowledge building classroom said the opposite, as the more they learned, the more they realize they didn’t understand, and thus still had more to learn.

This example affected me a number of ways. It reinforced the concept and crucial importance of a knowledge building classroom, and it made me realize this is the type of classroom I want to have. I want to be this kind of teacher and create an atmosphere of “questionability” in my classroom. I want my students to think of concepts and ideas as unfinished. I want my students to challenge others’ ideas, question the world, be critical thinkers and not always accept things as they are. Providing opportunities in the safe environment of a classroom, will give them the confidence and skills that they need to continue to build their knowledge in the future.

References
Bereiter, C. (2013). Principled practical knowledge: Not a bridge but a ladder. The Journal        of the Learning Sciences, 23(1), 4-17. DOI:10.1080/10508406.2013.812533

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. NY, USA:            Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from                                                                          http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10130369

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (2010). A brief history of knowledge building. Canadian              Journal of Learning and Technology, 36(1), 1-16. Retrieved from                                          http://cjlt.csj.ualberta.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/574/276

Conceptual Changes Needed

Before we began our shadow measuring experiment, I had the students predict when their shadows would be the biggest throughout the day. The predictions were fairly evenly split between morning, afternoon, and evening. As we carefully measured the next day, several students were surprised by the results. We all came back into the classroom, discussed our findings, watched a video to explain the sun moving across the sky, and came to a conclusive decision. The next day, we reviewed what we had learned and one girl informed me that the sun was the biggest at noon. I was shocked by her answer and didn’t understand how after a thorough hands-on experiment, discussions, and videos that she still did not understand the concept. I felt defeat swarm over me, as I questioned my own teaching abilities.

At the time, I could not understand how my teachings did not cement the concept of shadow length with this particular student. I did not understand why she did not learn the concept and felt frustrated with the entire situation. This was just one example, but I can definitely think of more, as I am sure any teacher can. Not only does it make you question your teaching, but it also made me question the learner.

Through reading and exploring the research in the learning sciences for the last two weeks, it is apparent that examples like this are common. DiSessa noticed that “educators saw vivid examples of students responding to apparently simple, core conceptual questions in nonnormative ways” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 270). Another research noted that after explicitly teaching a lesson on photosynthesis, when students were asked where a plant got its food from, there were numerous incorrect responses (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Through these examples it is clear that “formal instruction had done little [for students] to overcome their erroneous prior beliefs” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 70). Where do these misconceptions come from? As a teacher how do we break down the barriers to student learning?

Students come into our classrooms with an already previously developed knowledge based. They can be influenced by their families, values, beliefs, cultures, and social surroundings (Illeris, 2008). They come with preconceived notions and understandings of topics, and as teachers we need to work through these barriers and incorrect knowledge to help reform their learning. Hoadley & Van Haneghan (2011), state that in order “to foster conceptual change, learners need to deeply engage topics in ways that may radically shift their concepts, even while building on their existing conceptions” (p. 16).

Although this sounds like a task worth beginning, I question how one starts. With my ELL students, I find there are even more struggles and concepts that they’ve already developed these deep preconceived notions. How do I break through these? How do I find the time in my day to understand why they think the way they do? How do I work with the parents and help them with their own conceptual changes? The task seems daunting, but perhaps it is not my role to ensure these conceptual changes happen. If I continue to expose students to ideas, have them challenge their own ways of thinking, and question why they think the way they do, maybe they will experience transformational learning all on their own.

References
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind,                experience, and school (Expanded edition). Washington, DC: National Research                Council.

Hoadley, C. & Van Haneghan, J. (2011). The Learning Sciences: Where they came from        and what it means for instructional designers. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.)        Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 53-63). New            York: Pearson. Retrieved from                                                                                                  http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/006/742/Hoadley-VanHaneghan-draft.pdf

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their          Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from                                                   http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. NY, USA:            Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from                                                                          http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10130369

A Teacher’s Defence Mechanism

“The recognition of the importance of context suggested that the unit of analysis for understanding learning had to be larger than the individual person” (Hoadley & Van Haneghan, 2011, p. 4).

Through the learning sciences and as we decipher how people learn, we need to look at more than just the individual. Researchers conclude that isolating a person from their context and all the knowledge that they bring with them, is not a proper way to understand that learner (Hoadley & Van Haneghan, 2011). People may think a particular way because of their beliefs or past experiences. They may have specific values that mirror those of their culture and family. Ignoring those factors is ignoring the whole person.

What causes a person to embrace learning experiences and alter their ways of being? Do we react to certain scenarios subconsciously? Illeris (2008) examines these questions by looking at how an individual’s context and previous experiences influence their responses to change. He states that, “through everyday consciousness we control our own learning and non-learning in a manner that seldom involves any direct positioning while simultaneously involving a massive defence of the already-acquired understandings and…our very identity” (p. 15). People put up these defensive barriers as a way to block change and ultimately learning from happening. Does this happen intentionally? I would argue no, but in order to evolve as a learner, I think we need to start questioning our own ways of thinking. What are we afraid of?

We are afraid to fail. We are afraid of putting ourselves out into the unknown and not succeeding. Yet we consistently challenge our students and encourage them to embrace failure opportunities. We want our students to realize that failure is an opportunity for growth and that there is not only one correct way of doing things (Long, 2012). Why don’t we expect this for ourselves as well?

During the last school year, my admin gave me an article called, Who Moved My Cheese, by Dr. Spencer Johnson. It offers an interesting approach to how people respond to change through the eyes of four different characters. While reading the story and trying to decide which character I aligned with, I was consistently thinking about why we struggle to adapt to change, and came up with this conclusion: The idea of change comes with the image of uncertainty and the unknown, and the biggest barrier to change exists within yourself.

In our class discussion today, Dr. Friesen reiterated this point, in that these defence mechanisms that we put up in possible moments of growth and learning are a way to protect ourselves. They are the hardest to overcome because they are a part of our identity, but they are the places where transformational learning can occur.

As I think about implementing some ideas of the learning sciences into my classroom in the fall, I become overwhelmed with uncertainty. There are numerous things to try and places for improvement in my own teaching. I want to be the best teacher I can, but I question whether I will be successful and the extent to which I can facilitate deeper learning in my students. Is this a defence mechanism I am putting up myself? While trying to think ways to overcome this barrier, I can only find one solution. Revert to what the research says: collaborate, find a community of practice, embrace failure, and be open for opportunities of learning to occur.

References
Hoadley, C. & Van Haneghan, J. (2011). The Learning Sciences: Where they came from        and what it means for instructional designers. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.)        Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 53-63). New            York: Pearson. Retrieved from                                                                                                  http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/006/742/Hoadley-VanHaneghan-draft.pdf

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their           Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from                                                 http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951

Long, C. (2012). Teach Your Students to Fail Better with Design Thinking. Learning &               Leading with Technology, 39(5), 16–20. Retrieved from:                                                         http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ982832.pdf

Is Collaboration More Than Group Work?

Educational research throughout the 20th century focused on learning through an individualistic approach. Learning happened on a personal level, all teaching occurred in a similar fashion, and all students learned the same thing. Educational folk theory is a prime example of this, as there is a focus on individual differences and why some students have problems learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008). The successful student is used as a standard and comparison for others (ibid). I would like to believe that as we live through another century our ways of teaching students to learn has changed. However, a part of me questions the truth in this. Is standardized testing not another form of applying the educational folk theory? Do we still measure student success as a comparison to the norm?

The learning sciences attempt to answer this question by focusing their research on how students learn. Instead of questioning why students have trouble learning, they would question why a concept is difficult to learn (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008). Researchers argue that students should no longer be treated as individual learners, but instead as members of a knowledge building community (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2006). Knowledge building can be viewed as a community that aims to improve ideas rather than assuming a truth, through developing collaborative problem solving and in-depth understanding (ibid).

Throughout the exposure to all of these theories I see great application for this in my classroom. I understand that students learn differently and need to be a part of a collaborative, knowledge building community, but I also would argue that school systems haven’t completely ignored that notion either. When I think of my own educational experiences, I had ample opportunities to be part of a collaborative classroom community, where we worked together to be creative and form new ideas. I am beginning to question though if our definition of collaboration has changed. Has it moved away from the idea of group work towards a sharing and building of a knowledge network?

Kolonder et al. (2003) would support the assumption of this as they explain that:
“We try to help our teachers understand that collaborative learning is not simply a call to have students work in groups, but rather, it is a value that needs to permeate the classroom-through sharing across groups, more expert students helping less expert ones, the teacher admitting what he or she does not know and getting excited about learning from the students, the students together figuring out what they need to learn more about and helping each other with their investigations and experiment designs, and so on” (p. 539).

Through this definition, it becomes clearer about the transformation that the word collaboration has moved through. It also leads me to reflect upon my own teaching practices and wonder to what extent am I truly providing collaborative experiences for my students?

References
Kolodner, J.L., Camp, P.J., Crismond D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntembakar,           S., Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the           Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design™ into Practice.                   Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495-548.

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and                     technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp.           97-118). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (2008). Toward research-based innovation. In F. Benavidis         & D. Istance (Eds). Innovating to learning, learning to innovate. Paris, FR:                             Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. pp.67-88. DOI                           :10.1787/9789264047983-en

Choice, Collaboration, and the Social Learner

The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) began in the late 1990s, as a “bold approach to supporting the improvement of student learning and performance by encouraging teachers, parents, and the community to work collaboratively to introduce innovative and creative initiatives based upon local needs and circumstances” (Davis et al., 2012, p. 374). One AISI project that my school district worked was with math assessments, where we partnered alongside David DeCoste and our grade level teams to create meaningful performance tasks. Another AISI focused on academic vocabulary with ELLs, where Hetty Rossingh provided her expertise and grade level teams collaborated together to create moments of explicit teaching of academic language in our classrooms. In both of these experiences, AISI planning was used as a collaborative and effective team effort, thus being apparent that through these cycles “connectivity and collaboration have been sustained and amplified through AISI” (Davis et al., 2012, p. 394).

In the article Understanding School Districts as Learning Systems, the authors present four varying types of network structures for AISI: centralized, distributed, decentralized, and fragmented (Davis et al., 2012). It is apparent through the learning sciences research, that the ideal environment would be a decentralized one, in which customised learning, diverse knowledge sources, and distributed knowledge are present (Sawyer, 2009). Many current theorists further emphasize these ideas through putting the focus on the learner and their learning: Jarvis believes in making learning social, and Kegan and Engeström put special attention on how people learn (2008). All of these continue to emphasize the social aspect of learning, however, our school systems seem to be stuck in the past. “Our institutions…are largely based on the assumption that learning is an individual process, that it has a beginning and an end, that it is best separated from the rest of our activities…” (Illeris, 2008, p. 209). How do we move our methodologies into the current research framework when our institutions support the opposite? How can we help our students in their learning process, when our classroom designs and assessment procedures dictate an individualistic ideology?

I think movements are beginning within Alberta to support the current learning sciences theory. Teachers are not only looking at ways to transform their classrooms and become facilitators of teaching, but are also beginning to change the way in their own professional development. Edcamps are a prime examples of this, as they are a grassroots created PD experience for teachers. Edcamps refer to “a revolutionary idea that allows teachers to come together to collaborate on ways to inspire each other with new, refreshing ideas they can implement in their individual classrooms” (Kalesse, 2014, p. 20). I attended my first edcamp this year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Not only did it allow for choice in learning, but it provided opportunities for collaboration, moments to share your learning with other professionals, and motivated me to learn more. However, I was left to wonder two thoughts: Why do we lack opportunities for this type of teacher professional development, and why are we limited in creating these types of learning opportunities for our students?

References:
Davis, B., Sumara, D. & D’Amour, L. (2012). Understanding school districts as learning systems: Some lessons from three cases of complex transformation. Journal of Educational Change, 13(3), 373-399. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/article/10.1007%2Fs10833-012-9183-4

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951

Kalesse, R. (2014). Teachers lead the way at edcamps: participant-driven “unconferences” restore the power of professional development. Reading Today, 31(5), 20-21.

Sawyer, R. K. (2009). Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/40805146.pdf

Do Teachers Over-plan Learning Opportunities?

Teaching can be a difficult process, as we desire our students to get the most out of their learning. We want them to experience transformational changes, whereby they begin to change the way in which they “know” things (Kegan, 2008). We want them to challenge ideas, pose questions, and be creators. In order for this to happen, I believe students need to be actively engaged in their learning. Illeris (2008) defines learning as “any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change (p. 7). Reflecting on this definition and my teaching practices, leads me to the assumption that I need to provide meaningful and relevant learning opportunities for my students. What would this look like in the classroom? Hands-on experiences, real-life situations, interest-driven products, and ideas in the creation realm come to thought immediately. But sometimes I wonder as teachers, do we over-think learning? Do we try too hard to create meaningful learning opportunities which instead result in a superficial experience?

“But situations that bring learning into focus are not necessarily those in which we learn most, or most deeply…Learning is something we can assume – whether we see it or not, whether we like the way it goes or not, whether what we are learning is to repeat the past or to shake it off. Even failing to learn what is expected in a given situation usually involves learning something else instead.” (Wenger, 2008, p. 214)

Wenger’s description of learning above made me think about a personal classroom experience. We had read the story Toto in class, where a timid Ugandan boy finds the courage to overcome his fears of going into the field, and ends up rescuing a trapped baby elephant. I always find that stories involving animals help children to develop a sense of empathy, but what I didn’t realize in this instance, was that my students would be outraged about the cruelty involved in hunting animals. What started off as a simple story, in which I had planned “meaningful learning activities” to occur afterwards, led to discussions of animals cruelty, conservation, education for others, and continued on to animals in the zoo and whether this was in fact another form of cruelty. My students then decided to have a debate about whether or not zoos should even exist.

The point in me sharing this experience is that I think all too often as teachers we try to stretch learning experiences for our students. We want them to have great opportunities and in so we plan accordingly. But perhaps within a classroom environment that supports a culture of care and openness, and welcomes new ideas, learning will just happen.

Sources:
Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951 (Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 14 and 15 [5 and 11].

Changing How You “Know”

Have you ever had that moment in your classroom where a student questions something you have said or taught, which causes you to redesign your way of teaching? Have you ever had an experience in your personal life where you question and reform your current values system? Either of these experiences can be described as transformative learning, which Kegan describes as an epistemological change that causes individuals to change “how” they know things. “This shift results from a critical examination of one’s own assumptions, values, and beliefs, and of the foundations and expectations of the system in which one operates” (Nemec, 2012, pg. 478).

A moment in time when I believe I experienced transformative learning was after my first trip to Africa. I embarked on a journey to volunteer teach in Tanzania, which I believe has ever changed the way in which I view the world and has altered my values system. I taught in a rural school where I was the second “white” visitor they had. Besides the obvious barriers, and the adjustments I had to make to my teaching abilities, there is nothing I would change about my experience. In a village where bathrooms were rare, food was a scarcity, and the cosmopolitan lifestyle was nonexistent, every person I encountered was joyous and appreciative. It made me reconsider the material goods that I had placed value on (and perhaps which our society places value on), and instead to be thankful for the small but meaningful things, like family and friends. When I came back to Canada, my perspectives about what I wanted out of my life transformed from the focus of material items to loving relationships and the simpler life.

Research suggests that transformative learning “has been critiqued, tested, revised, and retested throughout the past three decades to arrive at a definitive framework for describing how adults learn best” (Kitchenham, 2008, pg. 119-120). However, what factors cause a transformational change? We know that the individual as well as social, cultural, familial, and other factors allow for reflection upon changes, but how does this change begin in the first place? Are there individuals who never experience a transformational change? If so, why? Do they lack a growth mindset or are they so fixed in their beliefs that they are not open to it?

Although my questions will remain unanswered, as an educator I will still strive to provide opportunities for my students’ values and beliefs to be challenged and questioned, through exposure to current events, alternative ways of thinking, critical analysis, and individual reflection.

Sources:
Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951 (Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 14 and 15 [5 and 11].

Kitchenham, A. (2008). The evolution of John Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education, 6(2), 104-123. Retrieved from http://usm.maine.edu/olli/national/postConference/2012_confWorkshops/workshopMaterials/Jon%20Neidy/The%20Evolution%20of%20John%20Mezirow’s%20Transformative%20Learning%20Theory.pdf

Nemec, P.B. (2012). Transformative learning. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35(6), 478-479. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=c6456d81-0fe0-4dc6-ac6f-d70d0deace7d%40sessionmgr4005&vid=2&hid=4112