Where ideas meet

I am currently reading a book evaluating the teaching philosophy of constructivism. At its roots in history, constructivism seems to have been born out of a postmodern view of the world. The content is not the center of learning, the learner is. This seems to be very acceptable to most on the surface. A quick look at the educational literature will verify this. (Keyword search: learner centered).

The main question should be how to individualize the approach not the content. For, taken to its extreme, individualizing the content means relativism and where then would we find truth. The answer in the postmodern perspective is that truth is relative and subjective not objective. Unfortunately, that statement is self-contradictory. I cannot say that truth is subjective without that statement somehow being inherently objective – that is repeatable and observable. It is true, however, that subjective perspective is a part of a greater truth.

How does this impact education? In what ways, does your educational approach or system reflect what you believe or how you see the world?

First things first

Much of education today seems to focus on knowledge and content.  However, there continues to be growing demands for abilities outcomes as the end result of an education, ie. ability to use knowledge.  In a discussion with a colleague of mine, Phil Schanely from the Cedarville University Center for Teaching and Learning, he mentioned David Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction.  First principles are the irreducible minimum for teaching.  These are the elements that all educational theories seem to have in common.  He suggests that all of these elements be connected to a real-world problem or task in order for learning to be efficient and effective.

1. Activation: leveraging previous experiences, new experiences, and structure

2. Demonstration: this refers to guided practice; show the learner how to solve the problem

3. Application: let the learner solve more problems with increasing complexity and continued feedback

4. Integration: the learner begins to own the new knowledge and “make it their own” by using it in everyday life.

In looking at many different types of teaching theories and strategies, I think you will see most of these elements.  Which of these elements do you find the most challenging to incorporate?  Do you incorporate all of these in your teaching?  Test it out.  You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

In previous posts, I mentioned that feedback and practice are essential.  Here are two quotes from Merrill’s article:

“Gardner (1999) and Perkins and Unger (1999) both emphasized the necessity of many opportunities for performance.”

“Feedback has long been recognized as the most important form of learner guidance.”

Merrill MD.  First Principles of Instruction.  ETR&D. 2002; 50(3);: 43-59.   (He also recently published a book that you can find on Amazon.)

You will be assimilated

Technology has become a part of everyday life for most.  I use technology in many different ways.  I use it to deliver content, to give students practice opportunities, to gather data used to give students feedback, to interact with students, and for feedback on my own teaching.  In higher education, there exists a tension between technology and traditional delivery of education.  Here is video that gives some food for thought on the best practices in using technology in education.

Value and the Learning process

As a teacher, I often reflect on my role with relation to student learning. I ask myself what can I do that students can’t get some other way. In today’s blog, I would like to frame the question on the context of the learning cycle.

There are multiple ways that scholars have tried to model or describe the learning process. One is Kolb’s learning styles. He describes four quadrants that reflect a learner’s preference for taking in information and processing information. The corollary to the learning styles theory is that each learner should move from one quadrant to the next until all four quadrants are navigated. For example, if the learner begins with lecture attendance or reading (which could be observational or reflective in processing and abstract information that would be attained), the learner would start in the assimilator quadrant. The next quadrant asks learners to use the abstract information. Examples of this include practice problems, quizzes, and exams. The next quadrant is application of knowledge in a concrete or real world context. Finally, the learner moves into the last quadrant to reflect on the concrete experience. The end result is a return to the original quadrant with new learning material.

I did some surveys to look at learning styles of pharmacy students over the years. There was an overwhelming bias towards the abstract (as opposed to concrete learning). Many questions arose such as why this was – could it be recruitment, place in the curriculum, exposure to traditional teaching methods? I don’t know. From a pedagogical perspective, I think that teaching strategy has a lot to do with this. For example, many programs that I have been a part of traditionally assign reading, expect students to attend lecture to take notes, and pass an exam. There is a strong emphasis on course content. However, two key elements that I feel are consistently missing are practice using newly gained knowledge and feedback on performance.

Teaching effects learning. If the teacher expects learners to acquire a great breadth of knowledge, he/she should set up the course differently than if he/she expects the learner to use that knowledge.  On the contrary, some might argue that there are teaching methods that help learners gain knowledge while applying learning skills.  However, even in this scenario, the knowledge content is limited or defined in some way.  In order for the learner to learn, he/she must receive practice and feedback. These two elements reinforce student learning. I would argue that if we are not interacting with our learners as such, they may be better off sitting in front of a pre-recorded video to learn.

How can you plan in time to give students practice and feedback? In my opinion, this is a key role for a teacher that adds value to an education.