This is a follow up to a post I wrote, How Do We Learn? How Should We Learn? The purpose of these posts is to encourage educators to examine practices they take for granted, implement without deep reflection of their efficacy. This post discusses the instructional practice of asking students to memorize information.
How often have students (ourselves included) been asked to memorize mass amounts of facts – historical dates, vocabulary words, science facts, get tested on them, just to forget almost all those memorized facts a week or two later? Given that is this learning experience is more common than not, why do educators insist on continuing this archaic and ineffective instructional practice?
To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding. (When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning)
The more closely we inspect this model of teaching and testing, the more problematic it reveals itself to be. First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful. (Alfie Kohn)
The visual image I use to describe this is that there are all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner’s brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts.
Memorizing facts often means a waste of students’ time and energy. In some cases, too many cases, learners lose their passion and excitement for a subject or topic that, if taught in another way, may have not been the case.
The Need for Context
Learning facts and knowledge about a content area topic is an important prerequisite to understanding that topic and then developing expertise. The key to this understanding is providing a context for the facts. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts. This is especially true for abstract concepts. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.
Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning should not be viewed as simply the transmission of abstract and decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another, but a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed; they suggest that such learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment. (Situated Learning)
Increasing Context and Relevancy
Authentic learning can be the driving force for increasing context and relevancy. Jan Herrington describes authentic learning along two axes – the authenticity of the task is on one axis (from authentic to decontextualised), and the setting is on the other (the classroom/university to the real setting). The goal of educators should be to increase authenticity which leads to more contextual learning (and vice versa).
The following are some suggestions for establishing context (the list is just a start). Ironically, they are practices that are often recommended are best practices in teaching but they aren’t implement as often as they should be:
- Assess and Connect to Learners’ Real Life and Previous Experiences with the Topic – see http://ideaedu.org/research-and-papers/pod-idea-notes-instruction/idea-item-11-related-course-material-real-life
- Use Hands-On and Experiential Activities – see http://www.raft.net/case-for-hands-on-learning
- Use Case Studies and Simulations – see https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/instructionalstrategies/casestudies.html
- Have Learners Engage with Real World Practitioners – see http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/52279118#52279118
- Implement Place-Based Learning – see http://www.ourcurriculummatters.com/What-is-place-based-education.php
The bottom line is that regardless of the content area, students deserve educations that have self-perceived authenticity, relevancy, and a context that makes sense.
If I ask you or your students, “How do you learn,” how many of you could clearly articulate this process? If you can, are the strategies you’re using the best ones for learning? Furthermore, if the research on the process of learning is compared to the practices being implemented in school, does this research influence school practices?
During my school years, I noticed there was a problem with how I was being asked to learn. Cramming and memorizing information, being tested for mastery prior to having enough practice time, having units of study with supposedly beginnings and endings, and learning facts with no context were counterproductive and at times, painful to me.
The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning is or should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. This, too often, results in learners believing that they cannot or do not want to learn new things especially in those areas where and when learning was painful. I believe learning can or should be natural, fun, engaging.
Benedict Carey informs us that “most of our instincts about learning are misplaced, incomplete, or flat wrong” and “rooted more in superstition than in science.” That’s a disconcerting message, and hard to believe at first. But it’s also unexpectedly liberating, because Carey further explains that many things we think of as detractors from learning — like forgetting, distractions, interruptions or sleeping rather than hitting the books — aren’t necessarily bad after all. They can actually work in your favor, according to a body of research that offers surprising insights and simple, doable strategies for learning more effectively. (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/)
Instead of making assumptions about the best and most natural learning strategies, it is best to research and study this process. “Unfortunately, most people, educators included, are unaware of the lessons from the science of learning” (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/).
What follows are some of those strategies that research has indicated are some of the better ones. It obviously is not extensive nor inclusive of all possible learning strategies, but it is a good start to reflect on how educators ask students to learn.
We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail—by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported that people who try solving math problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer—but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
When we’re picking up a new skill or learning something entirely new, it’s easy to binge-learn and obsessively work on it over time. However, that’s not always the best idea. In fact, spreading out learning, also known as distributed practice, is thought to be a better way to learn. A review of studies in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that spreading out learning is far more effective than cramming. Distributed practice is an old technique, but it actually works really well for the busy lives most of us lead. Instead of sitting down for hours on end to learn a skill, distributed practice is all about shorter, smaller sessions where you’re stimulating the link between the neurons more often throughout time. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
Breaking up and spacing out study time over days or weeks can substantially boost how much of the material students retain, and for longer, compared to lumping everything into a single, nose-to-the-grindstone session. (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/)
Take Breaks to Allow for Incubation
There’s a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you’ve run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go — walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is — and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem. (http://www.npr.org/2014/08/23/342219405/studying-take-a-break-and-embrace-your-distractions)
A 15-minute break to go for a walk or trawl on social media isn’t necessarily wasteful procrastination. Distractions and interruptions can allow for mental “incubation” and flashes of insight — but only if you’ve been working at a problem for a while and get stuck, according to a 2009 research meta-analysis. (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/)
Try Alternate and More Fun Ways of Learning Before Giving Up on Something New
When trying to learn something new, you can easily get burned out and feel defeated if the subject is taught by rote. The problem was the way the books “dragged [him] through a series of structured principles” lifelessly. This is not to say that learning through books is bad (not all books are terrible) or that all classes are like this. If you find yourself, though, thinking of giving up on a subject you really want to learn because you’re struggling with it, consider how you’re learning or being taught. Try to find a way to learn through play (http://lifehacker.com/5810326/try-alternate-and-more-fun-ways-of-learning-before-giving-up-on-learning-something-new)
Apply New Learning Often and in Meaningful Contexts
The more you can apply what you’re learning to your every day, the more it’ll stick in your head. The reason is simple. When you’re learning by doing, you’re implementing everything that makes our memory work. When you’re able to connect what you’re learning with a real world task, that forms the bonds in your brain, and subsequently the skills you’re learning will stick around.
We learn best when we have context, and that applies to new skills as much as it does random facts in school. That’s why something like the transfer of learning is helpful when your learning a new skill. This means you’re applying your new skills in your day to day life in a context that matters. (http://lifehacker.com/the-science-behind-how-we-learn-new-skills-908488422)
Questions to Help Guide Learning:
- Is failure viewed as normal and as a productive part of the learning process?
- Is learning spaced out over time rather than crammed into a short time period?
- Are distractions during learning normalized?
- Is the learning practiced often and in a variety of contexts?
- Is learning playful and fun? This is especially important when 0ne gets “stuck” at an impasse.
This coming summer I am getting the opportunity to teach a maker education camp for three weeks, half-days at a local elementary school. The descriptions for the three one-week workshops are:
- Circuit Crafts: Build glowing, sensing, and interactive circuit projects; make electronic stickers, circuit sketchbooks, circuit cards, and sewn circuits.
- Sweet Robotics: Make simple robotics using Popsicle sticks and LED lights; play with and build some robots with Makey Makey, littleBits, Hummingbird, and Modular Robotics.
- Toy Hacking: Take apart simple electronic toys to see how they work & then put them back together again creating a new toy; make an operation game.
I created a website in order to aggregate possible activities, resources, and tutorials; and as a means to promote the workshops to parents, so they can see examples projects that the kids will be working on. Below is a link to my website.
I have discussed educators as model learners before:
The educator’s role has or should change in this age of information abundance or Education 2.0-3.0. The educator’s role has always been to model and demonstrate effective learning, but somewhere along the line, the major role of the educator became that of content and knowledge disseminator. Now that in this information age content is freely and abundantly available, it is more important than ever to assist learners in the process of how to learn. (Educator as Model Learner)
I advocate for the educator, as leader learner, to demonstrate the process of learning:
To effectively do so, though, the educator needs to understand and be able to articulate and demonstrate the process of learning, him or herself. It is a mistaken assumption that educators know how to do so. The learning process can be made overt through recording and clearly articulating the steps, procedures, and/or strategies for doing so. (Educators as Lead Learners)
To learn and model this process, I recommend that educators pick something new to learn and practice doing the following: I am teaching at a maker education camp this summer and want to integrate LittleBits into my curriculum. As such, I am learning how they work. In order to model my process as lead learner, I noted how I am learning how to use Littlebits. I will ask the older kids to do a similar process and will have them explore my documentation to get an idea how to do this.
Note My Steps to the Learning Process
Why I Became Interested As a avid user of Twitter, I have a column for tweets hashtagged as #makered. LittleBits come up often. I have been watching how they evolved over the past year or so; and how they support and are being used by educators. Purchasing and Examining LittleBits LittleBits has several kits. I looked them over online and decided to purchase two kits: The Basic and the Arduino Coding Kit. I examined both sets to insure I was getting different LittleBits with the two kits. Since I am a consumer shopper, I found both these sets via eBay – new for about half of the original cost – score!
How I Am Learning
As many of us do in this century of learning, I go online to find tutorials. I am using the following resources to help me get acquainted
I try a few of the simple projects to learn about the functions of the different Littlebits. I then read over the projects offered in the manual. I mentally picture building them. Because I knew I could easily build the beginning ones, I skip to the last project in the manual – the Three-Wheeler and also view it online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niEsF4jeXU0. I have a belief that maker education is not about copying what has been already created. As such, I think about how I wanted to adapt the projects.
I conceptualize an adaptation of the three-wheeler as a cat toy/feeder. I come up with a mental picture of the cat toy-feeder. I would be using the light light sensor and bar graph to activate the toy when the sun comes up in the morning. Once activated due to the sun, the engine would move and the LED in the feathered tail would light up. The moving device with the trailing feathers and LED would encourage my cat to chase it, hence getting a little exercise prior to catching the reward of her cat food situated on the truck bed. Her body would cover the light sensor causing it to stop and giving her a chance to eat (photos can be found at the end of this post).
I have a bunch of Legos and tinker toys that I use when teaching and bring these out to help me build. Combining the Legos with Littlebits makes sense but connecting them takes some work with the use of tape. I guess LittleBits figured this out because I went online and found the brick adapter: http://littlebits.cc/accessories/brick-adapter. Because I have so many parts which includes LittleBits, Legos, Tinker Toys – some on the top and some on the bottom, I have to manipulate and play with different configurations to get everything to fit together and work correctly.
Thinking About My Thinking
Some of the thoughts I had during the building of this project:
- I love that I can jump on the internet and immediate get tutorials and example projects that others have done.
- I like the car project and believe the kids will like this, too, but I want to create my own version rather than following the directions as written.
- I have all of these building supplies from teaching – Legos, Tinker Toys, Pico Cricket. I can go find those to use with the LittleBits in order to complete my own design.
- How silly it is that I am an older woman “playing” with Legos. I need to let go of this thought.
- I figured some things out but dropping the little pieces a lot frustrated me. I decided to put it away and start again tomorrow morning.
- I feel a sense of accomplishment figuring out how to “fix” things so they work better.
- I think that being a ceramics potter and teaching EdTech has made me a better problem solver.
- I used the LittleBits motor to make it move, how can I use some of the other LittleBits to embellish it – add more features?
- I like combining the Littlebits with Legos but they are a little unruly. I have to “MacGyver” them together. This is making the project a lot more difficult.
- I know that letting ideas float around in my mind for a while often yields results, so after thinking about how I might adapt it, I came up with a cat feeder and toy.
- I know that I can successfully visualize art projects without needing to sketch them out. I know this is not true for everyone.
- It is taking a lot more time than expected – hopefully my hard work will pay off.
- Not having the right tools (e.g., not have the brick connectors) can be very frustrating.
- I don’t like how all of the electrical tape is showing so I’ll cover the top of the Lego plate. It will also serve to create a surface that will more easily clean off the cat food.
- Yea – it works. I am laughing and clapping at the whimsical nature of this project.
The maker movement is driven by the DIY movement, creating and recreating new “things.” At its core, then, making is about experimentation, about trial and error, about trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. As such, failure is seen as iteration. Part of being a lead learner, of understanding and documenting the learning process is recording the iterations of the project. I engaged in a lot of experimentation but had basically two iterations. I believe I would have had more but due to some experience with robotics, I had a good idea of what would work – not work.
- Had wheel extended too far back – couldn’t mount the motor.
- Front wheels bumping into base – needed to add spacers.
- The single back wheel didn’t work with a Lego wheel; too long of a motor stem made the wheel off centered and with the weight of the motor it fell to one side.
The second iteration was actually the final one but it took a lot of manipulating the back wheel and motor to get them to stay put.
I worked on this project over two days. I feel successful in a number of ways:
- Because I have done some simple robotics (Pico Crickets), ith my students before, I found that this background, helped me understand the functions of many of the Littlebits. It felt good to be able to quickly understand how Littlebits functioned.
- I am proud of the final project in terms of function but not so much in form. I don’t like all the tape I used and the wheel is a bit precariously connected. Maybe I’ll buy to brick connectors at some point.
- I was very excited about the final project. It worked as I conceptualized and my cat enjoyed it, too!