Three Ways People Learn – A Summer Refresher on Teaching for Understanding

Three Ways People Learn - A Summer Refresher on Teaching for UnderstandingUsing some existing educational research, we can begin to piece together how people learn, which can ultimately inform how teachers should teach. Makes sense right? While there are certainly numerous ways that people can take in and process information, research clearly shows that the following three findings are consistent and can have strong implications on how we teach and engage students. Before school starts again, teachers should take a few minutes and re-acclimate themselves with these key points.

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test, but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

Research on early learning suggests that the process of making sense of the world begins at a very young age. Children begin in preschool years to develop sophisticated understandings – accurate or otherwise – of the world around them (Wellman, 1990). Those initial understandings can have a powerful effect on the integration of new concepts and information. Sometimes those understanding are accurate, providing a foundation for building new knowledge, but sometimes they are inaccurate (Carey and Gelman, 1991). Drawing out and working with existing understandings is important for early learners, as well as learners of all ages.

  1. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

This principle emerges from research that compares the performance of experts and novices and from research on learning and transfer. Experts, regardless of the field, always draw on a richly structured information base; they are not just ‘good thinkers’ or ‘smart people.’ The ability to plan a task, to notice patterns, to generate reasonable arguments and explanations, and to draw analogies to other problems are all more closely intertwined with factual knowledge than was once believed. But knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient. To develop competence in an area or inquiry, students must have opportunities to learn with understanding. Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. One of the pronounced differences between experts and novices is that experts’ command of concepts shapes their understanding of new information: it allows them to see patterns, relationships, or discrepancies that are not apparent to novices.

“Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge.”

In most areas in K-12 education, students begin as novices; they will have informal ideas about the subject of study and will vary in the amount of information they have acquired. The enterprise of education can be viewed as moving students in the direction of more formal understanding (to become more expert) of the subject area at hand. This requires a deepening of the information base and the development of a conceptual framework for that subject area, which ultimately helps students organize their expertise around principles that support their understanding.

  1. A ‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Because metacognition – the awareness of one’s own learning – often takes the form of an internal conversation, it can easily be assumed that individuals will develop the internal dialogue on their own. Yet many of the strategies that we use for thinking reflect cultural norms and methods of inquiry (Hutchins, 1995; Brice-Heath, 1981, 1983; Suina and Smolkin, 1994). Research has demonstrated that children can be taught these strategies, including the ability to predict outcomes, explain to oneself in order to improve understanding, note failures to comprehend, activate background knowledge, plan ahead, and apportion time and memory. The model for using the metacognitive strategies is provided initially by the teacher, and students practice and discuss the strategies as they learn to use them. Ultimately, students are able to prompt themselves and monitor their own comprehension without teacher support. The teaching of metacognitive activities must be incorporated into the subject matter that students are learning (White and Frederickson, 1998).

Metacognition is critical for activating learners. It connects to the formative assessment process where we ask three questions from a student perspective:

  1. Where am I going? What is my learning target or goal? Some of this may be internal and some may be guided by teacher conversation.
  2. Where am I now? Students need to be able to self assess and monitor their own progress. When they become engaged (#1) and can organize what they are learning (#2) it is easier for them to figure out where they are in relation to the target or goal.
  3. How will I get there? As students develop their expertise, we are talking about both knowledge and expertise in using strategies to support their learning. Reflecting on what they need to do and how they can support themselves (which may include asking the teacher or peers for support) is one way that students use metacognitive strategies.

Understanding these three aspects of how people learn can be the difference between learning a procedure and learning with understanding.

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