21 May 2011

Basic Principles of Learning

In my last blog post, I wrote that I plan to centre my future courses upon education principles that I believe are fundamental to the learning process. These principles are controversial, and educators do not agree upon them. I have not done extensive critical work in education that would allow me to speak as an education expert, but I do know that the principles I espouse are respected among many educators that are expert in the learning process. Students are more successful and have greater morale and confidence when they engage in constructive learning as a collective effort to solve problems. In addition, the gathering of information, the recording of observations, reflections, analysis, and evaluation, and the communication of such insights to others is best served by Web 2.0 technology.

Learning is constructive. Learning is not the mere remembering of facts about the world, but the understanding of those facts, the ability to use facts to make a difference in the world, the reflection upon their interrelationship, the evaluation of the importance of the facts, and (finally) the making of something new as a result of the learning process to communicate with others. At each stage (see Bloom's Taxonomy) in learning, teachers have less and less constraint upon what constitutes successful and productive effort. It is up to students to construct understanding (and not merely to observe) the world.

Learning is collective. There is no doubt that our current educational systems in the western world focus upon individual effort, learning, and achievement. In this individual endeavour called education, there is intense competition. This intrudes even when learning involves a group activity; often we call the groups 'teams', implying that each team competes with each of the others for recognition in classes. Rarely is group activity as collaborative between teams as it is among team members. This is not desirable. Learning needs to be engaged as a community activity, so that there is sharing of understanding, rather than hoarding it. Such effort produces deeper relationships between learners, as well as a networking of understanding.

Learning is about solving problems. Much of education is centred around curricula that state objectives in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the recognized academic community sets for students seeking certification. This hides the problem-solving power of learning from the students who are providing effort to complete courses. It would be better to state up front what problems students are being prepared to solve in courses, rather than letting them figure this out for themselves only after they put the effort into learning the course materials. Non-problem-oriented coursework would be like training a person very carefully to use a drill without communicating that holes in wood and metal allow us to connect bits together to make things we need in life.

Learning involves technology. Strictly speaking, learning does not involve technology; it merely takes one person with understanding to help another person to do something in the world they could not formerly do. However, societies learned millenia ago that storing their insight via marks on cave walls, stone, or papyrus, and the like allowed learning to continue after the inventor/discoverer was no longer living. Even Abe Lincoln (legend has it) used technology--in the form of coal on the back of a shovel--to do math problems by firelight! When in modern times, we turn to Web 2.0 technology to aid learning, we are only extending the principle of technology use, not doing something new in education.

The commitment to allow students to solve problems using social media in class (and outside) in groups and without predefined materials to cover and memorize does not force me outside the university system. Rather, the system allows instructors enough discretion in their courses so that students can be responsible for their own learning in this way. I am excited to see how students respond to this change of focus in the coming year.

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