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When I was in college earning my education degree, most of the research on learning came out of behavioral psychology: Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner. We learned how to mold our students’ skills and behaviors through drill and practice, rewards, and punishments. Instructional techniques were built around how to train students to become fluent in the reading and computation skills they would need to be successful in life.

Then, about ten years later, when I was doing advanced graduate work and earning my certificate in curriculum design, we learned that learning wasn’t quite as cut and dried as that. Curriculum shouldn’t be compartmentalized, it should be integrated. Instruction shouldn’t be skill-driven, it should incorporate higher level thinking. Assessments shouldn’t be designed around discrete facts, they should be authentic. At the time we read an interview with Lauren Resnick, a major researcher into learning and how it works. (The article is available free to ASCD members.)

I recently came across the article again, and although it is now twenty years old, Resnick’s comments are thought-provoking, not the least because much of what she said then still has not become widespread in the field.

If knowledge consists of small bits of information to be accumulated, then we know how it is learned and therefore how to teach it. In that case the pedagogy has to do with how you organize practice, how you structure and sequence the material, and how you manage motivation…. But if you view knowledge as something more than an accumulation of little bits, if you want students to understand and be able to use knowledge reflectively, that’s different. (Brandt 1988/1989, p. 13)
If you read the professional literature and listen to what is said in training seminars and workshops, you might think this belief that there is more to learning than discrete facts has pervaded our school systems. Resnick talked about how mathematics, for example, is not a collection of skills, but is an “organized system of thought” (p. 14). But the curriculum has yet to catch up with the past. Even twenty years later, textbooks still look essentially the same as they did then. They still are structured around the accumulation of facts and discrete skills, though they often fill them with lots of the latest terminology.

Teaching practices really haven’t caught up either, because our schools aren’t structured to facilitate it.

What people learn is virtually never a direct replica of what they have read or been told or even of what they have been drilled on. We know that to understand something is to interpret it…. It is not enough to focus on making an excellent presentation, because you cannot assume that your elegant explanation will be heard and understood in its entirety. In fact, you can be almost 99 percent sure that no child in your classroom will get it the way you said it. (p. 15)
And yet what do we see in many classrooms? Teacher at the front, telling students what to do, how to do it, and what to remember. I’m guilty of it myself, and I think on reflection it is a function of time. Planning and implementing the most effective forms of learning experiences take far more time than most teachers can spare. So we fall back on what is efficient, even if it is not as effective.

It’s not enough to stay comfortable with what we know how to do. If I keep teaching the way I’ve always taught, I can’t bring my practice up to date with 1980’s research, let alone what is happening in 2009. I don’t think we can even afford to say, “the system isn’t set up for it, so why bother?” Find ways inside the structure to start making changes toward a more student-centered, thinking- and problem-solving-oriented approach.

How are you making this happen in your classroom? What are the struggles you’re facing? How can we work together to overcome the challenges?


Reference

Brandt, R. (December 1988/January 1989). On learning research: A conversation with Lauren Resnick. Educational Leadership, 46 (4), 12-16.

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