Tag: learning sciences

Ten Cornerstones of Cognitive Learning Sciences

January 18, 2018 by

I’ve read and read. Trying to understand the basics of the research from the sciences of learning. Trying to integrate the research from the cognitive with the emotional domains. Trying to understand the path from research on how children, teens, and adults learn to specific practices and strategies educators can use in school design, instruction, learning activities, and assessing student learning.

One of the best sources I’ve found for understanding the cognitive and motivational domains is the Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice published by OECD. In this article and the next, I’ll walk you through some of the highlights.

I’d probably skip the first chapter – you’ve heard it all before why change is needed. Chapter two offers a helpful review of the historical development of educational theory. For my own learning, the real value of the paper started in chapter three with these ten cornerstone findings of cognitive research:

1. Learning is an activity carried out by the learner. Teachers can’t just deliver curriculum and hope it sinks in. The trick is how to get learners to want to learn, to know how to learn, and to be mentally active. Then when teachers introduce new concepts and processes, the learners are ready to tackle it. Strategies to build make connections, student agency, motivation and engagement are all important.Teachers need to have content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge based on how students learn.

2. Optimal learning takes prior knowledge into account. Every educator knows this. However, it’s very hard to address if there is a push to cover the curriculum in preparation for tests. One big step of “meeting students where they are” is knowing where students are in terms of prior knowledge and helping them to move from there to the next step. Mistakes are important to help identify prior knowledge (and prior misconceptions). We have to ask ourselves, if we know this is important, why are we pushing so hard to cover the curriculum?

3. Learning requires the integration of knowledge structures. Children are getting information and ideas from all over the place, not just the classroom. They may be making sense of it in their own way, or it may just feel like a cluttered closet. One of the jobs of educators is to help them organize knowledge within domains and across domains. There are lots of implications for educational practice, but two jump out at me. First, competencies can be used to organize domain structures to have meaning. That’s what New Hampshire tried to do with their graduation competencies. Standards are just too small to be organizing structures. Second, interdisciplinary learning is important and schools need to be organized to support it. It’s likely that our domain silos, which often get more rigid in high school, are constraining learning.

4. Optimally, learning balances the acquisition of concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive competence. Next time someone argues that facts are all they care about and we shouldn’t be teaching concepts and meta-cognitive skills, it’s worth reminding them that if facts matter, we should turn to the facts of cognitive research. Understanding one of these without the others leaves students vulnerable when dealing with real problems in the real world. If you don’t have deep understanding of the concept, how do you know which process to use? If you can’t take a step back and see how you are dealing with a problem, how do you figure out what you need to change your behavior or build your knowledge to learn it? Being competent to take on the challenges of college and careers means having all three: concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive skills. (more…)

Moving Forward with the Science of Learning

January 11, 2018 by

Deadlines do matter. They get us to focus our attention to put in the time and effort to learn something. They help us learn time management because we uncover more about our own patterns of learning, both cognitive and social & emotional.

As you probably know, I’ve been puttering along in my learning about the science of learning (SoL). However, a national meeting on the topic has forced me to actually stop the review process and move into the mode of “What do I Think?” about the SoL and what it means for our schools, educators, and learners.

Here are a few high level thoughts about the SoL:

1. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement about the science of learning. Although I’m sure as you get down into the weeds there are plenty of healthy debates going on, educators should be confident going forward. This isn’t just the newest idea developed by a foundation that will get a lot of attention and then fade away. It is solid research, there is agreement in the field, and it has huge implications.

2. The field of SoL hasn’t fully integrated the research. The cognitive research is often described separately from the research on the motivational and social & emotional aspects of learning. This can give one cognitive overload trying to make sense of it all. There needs to be another round of work making the research more accessible.

3. There is a chance of focusing on one piece of the SoL without understanding the risk. When you read the SoL, it will often emphasize the limitations of the working memory. It’s a very narrow door from working memory into long-term memory, and we need to learn to manage it. However, if the cognitive research is all you focus on then you get very specific practices including chunking (they’ve made that a formal word in the world of cognitive sciences), spacing, practice until it becomes routine, and other strategies to move into long-term memory. Of course, you also can think about retrieval strategies to pull information out of long-term memory as well.

It’s truly very important to help students develop routine expertise so they can use their working memory in other ways and don’t have to expend it on addition or sounding out a word. However, the research on social & emotional learning is equally as important to consider. School norms, creating a safe environment through culturally responsive strategies, helping students build social & emotional skills and meta-cognitive skills so they can manage their attention, and structuring schools around building incredibly warm, consistent relationships will all help with reducing the amount of noise in working memory. (more…)

Memorization is Still Important, Even in Deeper Learning

October 31, 2017 by

This is the 2nd article in a periodic series on aligning competency-based schools with the learning sciences.

In an earlier post, I described my effort to understand the cognitive learning sciences and begin to make connections with our work in competency-based education. This post, and part of what may become a series, is another effort to ground our work in the learning sciences. And like the earlier post, I will turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning. They’ve organized their summary into six questions:

  • How do students understand new ideas?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems?
  • How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  • What motivates students to learn?
  • What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

I realized that I have been making a bit of an error in how I talk about the efforts to engage students in the higher level skills, usually level 3 and higher in the different taxonomies such as Webb or Bloom. I’ve tended to judge those schools that have stayed focused on memorization and comprehension without creating opportunity for more analysis and evaluation or applied or deeper learning. I’ve tended to see them as underserving their students, out of touch with the demands of the skills young adults need in today’s world, and even holding low expectations for students. Perhaps they are all those things, but my mistake has been in undervaluing memorization.

Memorization must not, of course, be the end-all of the school experience. However, it must be appreciated and valued in the role it plays in learning and the application of learning. In fact, as we think about helping students develop the skills to be lifelong learners, perhaps we should lift the knowledge about how to memorize in the long-term into that set of skills every student should know. From Science of Learning:

Cognitive Principle: Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Teachers will need to teach different sets of facts at different ages. For example, the most obvious (and most thoroughly studied) sets of facts are math facts and letter-sound pairings in early elementary grades. For math, memory is much more reliable than calculation. Math facts (e.g., 8 x 6 = ?) are embedded in other topics (e.g., long division). A child who stops to calculate may make an error or lose track of the larger problem. Additionally, the advantages of learning to read by phonics are well established. (more…)

Making Sense of the Learning Sciences

October 24, 2017 by

I’ve been spending a year reading about the cognitive learning sciences and also about John Hattie’s work to review the effect of different strategies. Even with Bror Saxberg’s coaching (for which I’m deeply grateful), it’s been slow going for me, as I started with a pretty blank slate. I was also simply stuck. I was learning and my familiarity with the high level findings was growing, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply it. I was simply having difficulty making meaning for my work at CompetencyWorks because so much of the power of the cognitive learning sciences impacts practices of the teacher at a much more granular level than I encounter on my three- to five-hour school visits.

I had two breakthroughs recently, and now connections are being easily made. First, when reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I realized that his exploration of different systems of thinking, with System 1 operating automatically and involuntarily and System 2 operating with deliberation and reasoning, opens a door for us to challenge the bias that we bring into our work and our relationships. It opens the door for us to be more cognizant of the types of bias and how they impact the learning lives of children in our schools. Perhaps we can use the learning sciences to cleanse ourselves and our schools of bias.

Second, as we think about the competency-based cultures, structures, and pedagogical philosophy (one of which is that teaching should be grounded in the learning sciences), it’s important for us to test out how districts and schools are supporting teachers to use the cognitive learning sciences as well as those that influence engagement and motivation. In other words, what are the structures and reinforcements that make it easy for teachers to use the learning sciences, and are there ways in which districts and schools are creating obstacles that we should address?

To get started, I’ll turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning, by far the easiest summary out there. Let’s look at one of the three principles under How Do Students Understand New Ideas?

Cognitive Principle: Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?” (more…)

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