Week 1: The Design of Learning Environments

The Design of Learning Environments

Goals of Schooling: When politicians and others claim that schools are “getting worse”, it is particularly important to understand how the goals of schooling have changed, even just in the past two hundred years. The goal of schooling, at least for the common man in the early 1800s, was merely to listen for what the teacher wrote and then to directly transcribe it onto one’s paper. Even when reading became to be taught in schools, teachers initially taught just “recitation literacy,” or being able to read memorized texts. It was not until 1914 that “extraction literacy” became important, or being able to read and extract meaning from an unfamiliar text, prompted by the need for Army soldiers to be able to handle new equipment in foreign countries.

In the early 1900s, factories had become a prevalent system of organizing production, and factory principles began to be applied to other workplaces, including, not surprisingly, schools. Teachers were relegated to merely carrying out procedures which had been devised by administrators and researchers. (It is worth noting that this was a gendered process, insofar as it coincided with the shift of the workforce of teachers from being mostly men to being mostly women and the introduction of male administrators to look over the newly hired women teachers). Much like was done in the workplace in terms of quality control, testing procedures were developed in order to ensure that students had learned what they were “supposed to” learn.

In modern times, students are expected to comprehend not only the present state of knowledge, but to create new knowledge, utilizing problem-solving skills in mathematics, evaluating historical documents in history, and testing theories in science. (Psychologists call these problems ill-structured problems, meaning that there is not just one way to solve them and that the paths to the solution, and sometimes the solution itself, may be unclear.) Students need to be able to demonstrate these skills not just in school, but throughout the course of a lifetime, to become “lifelong learners” as well as lifelong contributors to society as a whole.

2.1 Learner Centered Environments: “Learner centered” environments are environments that meet learners where they are at and take seriously what the students “bring to the table.” One way of doing this is known as “diagnostic teaching,” where students are presented with tasks that may embody misconceptions (think of the Piagetian water conservation task, for example) so that students’ ideas are brought into conflict and students can have meaningful conversations that involve genuine disagreement.

Another important way of thinking about learner centered environments is through the lens of “culturally relevant” pedagogy. In culturally relevant pedagogies, teachers build upon students’ home knowledge and skills (this is sometimes called a Funds of Knowledge approach) and enable them to see the ways in which the skills they already possess have academic merit. This is of particular importance when it comes to language, since students who are not from middle- or upper- class backgrounds may not come to school knowing “school talk” and often find teachers (and other students) devalue the way that they speak in the classroom.

In order to create a learner centered classroom, teachers need to understand that students come to the classroom with their own ideas, backgrounds, and meanings. Rather than asking students to discard what they already know, teachers need to invite students to engage in critical dialogue that builds upon home knowledge and other forms of experience that the students already possess. This does not mean that teachers just have freeform conversation; a skillful teacher can tie this dialogue back to the key curricular points and use student talk to illuminate new perspectives on the material being taught in the course.

2.2 Knowledge-Centered Environments: Knowledge-centered environments build on learner-centered environments by starting with what students know and their prior conceptions but placing an increased emphasis on sense-making and on transfer. This increased emphasis on sense-making requires that teachers believe in students’ ability to engage in sophisticated thinking; it used to be thought that children were incapable of such advanced thinking, but recent research has shown that carefully sequenced instruction can enable students to do far more than used to be thought.

One sequence that has been extensively studied, CRA (Concrete-Representation-Abstract) , is where students move from concrete situations to representations of these situations to more abstract representations. The reading explains it slightly differently; as starting with pictures and diagrams, moving to informal use of symbols, and then into formal notation, but the basic premise remains the same, that starting with more concrete situations and moving into abstractions can be very helpful for students. It takes a particular understanding of the way children think to be able guide them into working with abstractions at a young age, and we cannot assume that all problems will henceforth be solved abstractly; an important part of transfer is helping students to know when to interact with a problem concretely and when to approach is abstractly.

It is important to realize, too, that we are teaching the ways that knowledge fits together, in ways that make sense, not just how to memorize content or carry out procedures. Rote acquisition of facts and procedures does not readily lend itself to transfer, and thus does not constitute a knowledge-centered environment, even though the teacher may think they are teaching important “knowledge” when they do so.

2.3 Assessment Centered Environments: Similarly to how knowledge-centered environment focuses on teaching students the way that knowledge fits together and makes sense, rather than merely memorizing facts and procedures, in an assessment centered environment, a teacher needs to assess for understanding. This must be done both formatively, during the learning process, and summatively, or at the end of the learning process in order to be effective.

Formative assessment is not just about the teacher giving feedback; an assessment centered environment encourages students to interact with each other and to give each other feedback on their work. In order to do this, tasks need to be designed to engender dialogue and cooperation. Students need to also have opportunities to revise their work based on feedback; the traditional end-of-chapter test or end-of-semester essay does not allow students to revisit their thinking in light of the instructor’s comments, and it is quite common on summative assessments that the comments are ignored in favor of merely looking at the letter grade. By requiring students to revise work, they have to engage meaningfully with the comments they receive from the instructor and their peers.

The idea of there being a specific set of process skills has become increasingly important in math and science. When students engage in complex, ill-structured tasks, it becomes more apparent whether or not they have mastered process-skills, and so it is important that students be given an opportunity to struggle so that the teacher can note where and when students utilize the more complex process oriented skills and how they are able to concretely draw on the knowledge they have gained in new situations. If the process instructions are too constraining, teachers will only be assessing content and will not be able to assess process, so it is important that assessments tasks be sufficiently open-ended.

2.4 Community-Centered Environments: An emphasis on community-centered environments follows naturally from some of the previous ideas, such as learner-centered approaches valuing knowledge from home culture, knowledge-centered environments focusing on transfer to novel situations, and assessment-centered environments focusing on how students interact with each other in ways that reflect understanding of process, not just content. Setting community norms and building classroom communities that value these type of things is essential. Not all norms are appropriate for students of all cultural backgrounds, and when you encounter situations as a teacher that might be explained by cultural difference, it is important to research the appropriate cultures, while being careful to avoid stereotypes and making assumptions based on a student’s cultural background.

A community-centered environment also emphasizes connections to the broader community in which students reside. Knowledge transfer is especially important here, as students may not necessarily make connections between what they have learned in school and what they have learned in the rest of the community. Nonformal learning environments are definitely an increased area of academic study; the U of A even offers an undergraduate course focused on that topic! Outside experts can be brought into the classroom to pose learning challenges to students and to help reinforce what’s going on in the curriculum, rather than just as a diversion from ordinary classroom activities.

The reading also focuses heavily on the impact of television on students’ learning (such the ability to both challenge and reinforce stereotypes), which I think still remains relevant, but I think that we might also want to examine the impact of devices such as smartphones and tablets too, especially given what’s happened in the 17 years since the book was written.