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Reaction to "Learning: From Speculation to Science"

Jessica Watkins's picture

Until quite recently, understanding the mind--and the thinking and learning that the mind makes possible--has remained an elusive quest, in part because of a lack of powerful research tools.  Today, the world is in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scientific work on the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence.(Bold font added)

--Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning with additional material from the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School 

It's interesting to think that the most "powerful research tool" needed to delve into the depths of the mind might be the mind itself.  The amount of information processed daily in our brains, the countless words and phrases chewed up, swallowed and digested by millions of tiny neural networks, is astonishing, to say the least.  So much information is stored and accessed differently by different people based on previous knowledge/experience and their individual neural makeup.  Some people are good at history; others are math whizzes.  And still others are geniuses when it comes to art, English, languages, philosophy...the list goes on.  The first chapter of How People Learn uses the term "competence" as if it is an objective state to which all learners should aspire, the ultimate demonstration of knowledge learned (or maybe just memorized?) and, hopefully, applied to "real life."  How can it be possible, however, that competence exists as a single, objective state when learners exist within a broad-reaching spectrum?  Some students learn more quickly than others; some are born with learning disabilities, some acquire them later in life, and others are deemed "normal."  If a child is proficient at one section of a standardized test, for example, and completely lost on another, are they truly "incompetent?"  Do they deserve to be labeled as such just because they fall short of what society has decided is important in the scheme of life?  Is it absolutely necessary that all learners are proficient at all subjects?  Assuming the eventual acquisition of a stable career is the goal of most people's education, it is important to remember that most jobs only require knowledge of one or a few subjects learned in the school years.  Astrophysicists who flunked history but build space shuttles that propel human beings and all their aspirations to space are certainly not "incompetent," and just because a student is not fully-skilled in one subject does not mean they are "incompetent" and not ready to move on to the next level of their education.  "Competence" needs to be put into context.

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The article's main objective is to illustrate what influences education and the learning of individuals, as well as what teachers should take into account while learning to teach and interacting with various types of students in the classroom.  While its laying out of the "science of learning," as well as ideas about what techniques should be incorporated into education, is useful and applicable to both teachers and students, the beginning paragraphs of the article seem a bit restrictive.  They set up the notion of a definite right and "wrong" in the context of education (as opposed to the idea of students gradually becoming "less wrong") and discuss how a "deep understanding of important subjects" is necessary for students to be successful; exactly who decides what is "right and wrong" and which subjects are "important" is not clarified.  There are some important points made in the piece, however, that teachers of all varieties should acknowledge:

  • In order for students to truly understand what they learn, modeling and hands-on activities are useful. 
  • Merely memorizing facts does not mean students are really "learning," or that the topics they learn will be applied to situations later on in life.
  • Each students brings a different view to the classroom based on their personality, culture and past experiences, and teachers should be aware of these unique opinions when introducing a new topic. 
  • Because students come to the classroom with different, individual preconceptions and thus begin their learning at different levels.  Teachers should recognize that students learn at different levels and thus have to be treated individually.
  • Encouraging students to think metacognitively (that is, to think about how they think and the thought processes that they use to come to conclusions) is useful in helping them to understand not only what, but how they are learning.  However, metacognition is not something to be strictly taught; it should come from within a student's self.

All of these points are valid and important when deciding how to revamp the classroom in order to make it more "learner-centered," as the article puts it.  However, there is one confusing point toward the end:

Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.

Does "depth" in this context mean simply giving students more materia to learn (which would ultimately just lead to more facts being memorized and no more knowledge actually being absorbed)?  Or does it refer to teachers spending a larger chunk of time on one subject until students really know it and can apply their knowedge to different situations (not just tests, quizzes and projects)?