20 February 2011

Tinkering for the 21st century learner

Today I came across two texts from different sources which essentially proffered the same message: the importance of trial and error in the learning process. Both Michael Duffy’s essay Try, Try Again in the Sydney Morning Herald and Dr John Seeley Brown’s interview in the PBS doco Digital Media (thanks to http://bluyonder.wordpress.com/ for the tip) discussed the virtues of trying, failing and trying again.

Michael Duffy’s essay quotes from a book called Being Wrong by American journalist Kathryn Schulz. Schulz writes:

''Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honourable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage…''
''And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.''

In his interview, Dr John Seely Brown begins by discussing ‘the questing disposition’, by referring to specific examples of gamers and surfers who, within their respective communities, share a curiosity and passion which generates natural learning. Dr Brown states that one of the chief skills needed by the children of today - to ensure they will be able to navigate the world of the future - is a ‘love of embracing change’.  His central premise is that we need to teach students the value of tinkering, of playing with a problem in an attempt to solve it. By tinkering, we are experimenting with things ourselves, asking ‘Does this fit?’, ‘Is this a match?’ etc. Dr Brown invites us to consider that ‘Tinkering brings thought and action together in some very powerful, magical ways.’

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if the academic community accepted Schulz’s opening sentence as a given? Imagine if all students saw errors as learning opportunities, chances to improve, a reason to try, try again? How can we best offer students the opportunity to tinker with ideas, concepts, words, numbers, as well as objects and projects? What a challenge for us!

I believe that tinkering has a place in all real and lasting learning. The following variables would make this possible:
  1. Time: to play, to think, to scrap, to start over, to collaborate
  2. Curiosity
  3. Passion and enthusiasm
  4. Genuine interest in the product/skill
  5. Facilitation rather than explication on behalf of teachers and mentors
  6. A ‘mastery-oriented’ approach (Dweck)
  7. More time!
What does this mean for schools when ‘being right’ is often the only way to awards and success? For the purposes of this post, I would like to offer only two suggestions from an endless list of possibilities.

13 February 2011

Intelligence, Competence and Expertise

Educators would agree that engagement in the teaching and learning process is one of key steps in improving student outcomes. I recently came across an article by Robert J. Sternberg which made the following statement:

“The main constraint in achieving expertise is not some fixed prior level of capacity, but purposeful engagement involving direct instruction, active participation, role modelling, and reward.”[1]

In the body of the article Sternberg goes on to argue that intelligence is not the only determiner for school success and many of us know this to be true. The article shows, through a variety of intelligence tests on diverse cultures that intelligence is only one instrument a student is using and that it is not a fixed instrument. (See earlier post Mindset and Praise.) 

Most of us teach using a variation on the processes which Sternberg lists. There is a time for direct instruction, although this may or may not be teacher-centered, and it is essential that students participate, by constructing their knowledge in some form or another.

In the same article Sternberg then states:
                “Indeed, motivation is perhaps the indispensible element needed for school success.”[2]

And we all know that motivation is much trickier. Getting students over the barriers, getting them to want to learn, getting them to be successful learners, these are issues we have all debated over time.  Many of the theorists in the Handbook of Competence and Motivation suggest that achieving competence is inextricably linked to motivation. When we feel that we can do an activity at a reasonable level, we are often motivated to increase that activity, eventually leading from competence to expertise.

Sternberg stresses that this is a cycle: learners move from novice to expert in a particular area, then they begin the cycle again with new thinking, knowledge and learning. His illustration below allows us to see learning as a continuum which incorporates knowledge, learning, thinking and metacognition as well as the previously mentioned motivation. Sternberg shows that all of these factors feed into one another as the student increases his/her competence and moves towards expertise. 

If we can externalize the process which Sternberg suggests as we teach, we can help students to realise that learning is cyclical. This should ensure that students experience greater engagement with the process of learning.

[1] Sternberg, Robert J., ‘Intelligence, Competence and Expertise’ in Elliot, Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (Guildford Press 2005)

[2] ibid

05 February 2011

Space to learn (2): a simple step

For the last three years we have had one room in our department set up in group mode. This year, I have decided to conduct all my classes in this way. Although I don’t have access to the modern furniture I blogged about in Space to Learn (see below), I can reconfigure all of the rooms into which I am timetabled.

This week I reorganised the desks in the room where I have Years 12, 11 and 9, after consultation with all of the other teachers who use the room. It is a small space (but air-conditioned – thank God) so I removed all the desks which were not required and placed the remaining into five groups. Immediately the room seemed larger, with enough space for both the students to move around when we are operating in varied group formations, and for me to assist students with tasks and task focus. I will also continue a practice I began years ago, and avoid the traditional teaching zone (the front of the room).

It may resemble a K-6 school classroom, but I wonder when we Secondary school teachers thought that was such a negative?