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Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Theory of Learning Explained-Constructivism

This is the first of a three-part series relating learning, teaching and cognition to theoretical models. The purpose is to explain how children and adults learn. I will explore the psychological and social influences as it applies to your child’s education. I will keep the jargon and acronyms to a bare minimum. My intention is to provide parents and teachers with sound, research-based suggestions for helping their child learn in a manner that best fits his strengths. Each person learns in a unique fashion. Our job as parents and teachers is to help students understand why they do what they do, and how to use specific mental tools to increase their ability to learn simple and complex concepts. 
Constructivism-Making sense of the world through connections and building knowledge upon what we know or the alternate title- If I have to sit through six hours of lectures, I will pull out my hair!
Constructivism is based on the principles that learning occurs when children are actively connected to creating their knowledge. Children do not learn best when they sit passively and listen to a teacher spew facts and figures. The students use prior and current knowledge to make sense of what they are studying. A good example of constructivism in action is reflected in a fifth grade science lesson. I asked students why manhole (or sewer pipe) covers are round. I could have explained the possible answers and moved on to a different topic, but that may or may not have allowed the students to build knowledge that will be stored in their brains. Instead I gave them cardboard, coffee cans, construction paper, tape and various other supplies to help them support their hypotheses. Through their understanding of basic shapes, geometry and rudimentary engineering, the students hypothesized (guessed) that an object that is a circular shape cannot fall in a hole of the same size. Any other shape, a square for example, could be turned on its diagonal and dropped into the hole. The second answer, one I had not anticipated, is that the cover has to be round because the pipes are cylindrical.
Over the last 16 years in the classroom I continue to observe in awe and excitement when a child finally “gets it”. There is a great satisfaction seeing new learning and connections take place.  On the flip side I witnessed many youngsters struggle with learning. I’ve seen tears, anger and frustration.
I have tried dozens of different strategies to help struggling learners. I have done the same to help gifted learners accelerate and I have worked with a mix of strategies for all of the students who traverse back and forth on the continuum of self-efficacy.  I know I stated I would not use teacher jargon, but self-efficacy is a critical term. I want all parents and students to have a solid grasp of what it means, how it works, and how understanding the psychological impact it has on learning. This term will weave its way through my first article and it is beneficial for all of us to have a clear grasp of the concept.
Self-efficacy is a term that describes how confident a student feels about his potential to succeed in a given task. Some researchers claim that the more confident a student is about a subject, say math, the better he will do.
Of all the strategies I employed with students, I found that the most successful way to get them challenge themselves intellectually is based largely on how they think about themselves and their chances of success. Teachers try to code and secretly label the various ability groups that we corral students into, but it doesn’t matter. They all know who (or think they know) the smartest and weakest students are. That in itself is enough to inhibit a love of learning. Children are consequently self-conscious about their academic ability that it restricts them from truly challenging themselves. I believe this stems from three things: The first is the incorrect assumption that failure is bad. The second is the incorrect assumption that the speed of knowledge acquisition relates to higher intelligence across all disciplines. And the third is that most, not all, of the teaching styles in our schools are delivered with the “average” child as the focus.

School Goals
There is a massive push at the federal, state and local levels to rapidly change the way teachers teach and students learn. The traditional, teacher-directed, student-passive manner that began in the industrial age has not changed much. You would be hard pressed to not find students sitting in neat rows facing a teacher who is standing in the front of the classroom. The teacher lectures and delivers information to the students who in turn show their understanding by answering mostly low-level types of questions such as recalling facts. The student who has trouble reading does not do well in this environment, nor does the student who learns rapidly, nor does the student who learns best if he can touch things, move around, ask a ton of questions, and make connections. That student is sometimes referred to as ADD, ADHD, hyper, fidgety and so on. I get fidgety if I sit quietly for more than 15 minutes too. Our district is combating poor teaching with building a strong knowledge of good teaching skills to classroom teachers. Diversifying the manner in which children are taught strengthens their ability to learn.

Parent Activity and Theory in Action
So how can your knowledge of constructivism and self-efficacy help your child in the classroom? We’ll explore this concept in two areas. The first thing you can do is help your child understand that failing does not mean he is a failure. Smart people ask many questions. The second area I want you to focus on is how people learn. There are decades of research conducted and documented by some of the world’s leading educational theorists. These researchers have painstakingly observed children to determine the myriad ways in which they learn. One such researcher is Jerome Bruner.
Jerome Bruner, who shares a birthday with my wife, just turned 97 years old on October 1st. He is a leading educational psychologist and has developed theories on how people create and retain knowledge. Bruner (Presno, 1997) believes that children learn by building a base of knowledge and connecting new concepts. He strongly believes that learning goes beyond the school walls. That true learning can only take place when children see how everything interconnects and applies to the real world. Bruner states that teaching and learning should go beyond the curriculum and standards. It should be not be limited to basic facts and memorization. Learning should be constructed through experiences and connections. Children should build their knowledge through a rich and dynamic learning environment. I will give an example of this from my experience as new elementary teacher in the late 90s.
It was common practice for fourth-graders to study the different regions of the United States. Some of you may remember “helping” your child with their cardboard reports. The students were required to memorize the state capitals in their regions throughout the course of the school year. That’s fine. I have no real problem with that. A few years later I visited a 7th grade social studies class. They were studying state and national capitals. What a waste of time. This is one of those things that are nice to know. Aside from trivia games, what are the intellectual benefits of knowing the capitals of Malaysia, Benin and Sao Tome? I argue that there are no benefits. Bruner, I believe would support the notion that children can learn this and other facts if they see the importance, how it applies to other things, and if they have a vested interest in learning it. If a child finds out that his grandparents emigrated from Liberia, he might develop a strong desire to learn all about that culture, the country and possibly the capital. This knowledge is not learned in isolation. It matters. Other children may learn particular capitals, but I bet they may confuse whether it is a city, state or country. That is clear evidence that they were only learning basic facts for the sake of learning basic facts.
A great way to learn about regions, states and capitals that Jerome Bruner would approve of would look similar to this: Give the student or a group of students a geographical region to study, maybe the northeast U.S. The students would select an area they are interested in. The teacher sets up events with other students across the region to interact with each other. This could be done low-tech with activities such as writing and getting pen pals, or it can be done high-tech where students Skype or video conference with other children across the country. Students could have prewritten questions and learn about locations from primary sources, not just text books. The students are actively engaged in learning that they construct. They are not simply the receptors of knowledge via a teacher’s lecture or text-based assignment.

Final thoughts
Constructivism is one example of how people learn and retain information. Learning is a complex process that is affected by many external and internal influences.  Building your knowledge of how children learn- will help you- help them. If you have any questions or feedback, post a reply or comment in my blog and I will gladly respond.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The 10K Race and Taking Tests: What can we learn from the runner?

 Test taking can be extremely stressful for students of any age. To alleviate this, I advise my students to prepare for tests as they would an athletic event.  The parallels are a good way to remember how to get the most out of your brain.

Racing and Tests

An athlete preparing for a 10K race in three months does a few things in advance. He creates and follows a training schedule, establishes a personal goal, and keeps the end target in mind. On the day of the race he is relatively clear on his expected performance. You will be hard pressed to find an athlete cramming in hours of running minutes before the race in hopes of getting a little extra out of his heart and lungs.  This would only hinder his performance. The same rules hold true for studying.  Good advice from professor David Jaffee (2012) on how to study for an exam is to NOT study for an exam. Instead you should “study for learning and understanding.” Research shows that despite what many think, cramming does not help you perform better, it does the opposite. Just like that runner planning for an important race, a student should employ a similar systematic approach in preparation for an important test.

Here are six simple steps to follow when preparing for a test. The same applies to taking multiple tests or exams (think like a triathlete):

1.     Be sure to know exactly what you need to learn.
Know what to expect and set goal
2.     Check your understanding or mastery of the sub topics. Do this frequently (daily or weekly)
Monitor progress
3.     Get clarification or explanation for information that is confusing.
Modify training plans as needed to meet goal
4.     Start studying well in advance. Focus on small objectives or topics to help you get the big picture
Set a consistent schedule and routine
5.     Make a confidence list of what you know, what you do not know and what you are unsure of, then address each.
Set short-term expectations for the event. This is part of a long-term goal (the next race)
6.     Visualize yourself taking the test and doing well.
See the event in your mind, build your confidence and convince yourself of doing well.

The day before your exam, it is crucial to physically and mentally prepare your body as you would the day before a race. Eat healthy and get a good night’s rest. On the day of the test, a moderate apprehension level is fine. It helps give you a performance edge. You should be relaxed and confident in your knowledge.

Oxygen and Blood

The brain needs oxygen to work efficiently. When people are nervous their breathing tends to be shallow and restricted. It is very important to breath slowly, deeply and calmly prior to and during the test. 
Runners do not prepare for the race by sitting in a chair, nor should the test taker. If you are a teacher, have your students move around a bit and do some light movement. If you are a student, take a brisk walk or do some light stretching and movement before the test. Get the blood moving!

Gum Chewing?

Yes, but only before a test, not during. Research conducted at St. Lawrence University by (Onyper, et. al, 2011) indicates that students who chewed gum prior to, but not during a test scored higher than students who did not. Why? Onyper (2011) posits that the chewing motion activates muscles, which increase the blood and oxygen flow. The increase blood flow carries sugars that activate areas of the brain used for memory recall. So let the kids chew and have a handy trash basket to discard the gum right before the test.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Students learning with Technology

The rapidly changing environment of using technology in school is met with support and opposition by educators. I've asked some of my students to share their thoughts and recommendations of technology.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lovely Acronyms and Jargon Simplified

Click the "Say What?!!" link above to view the glossary and explanations for the simplification of educational jargon and acronyms.

Parents, it is always appropriate and encouraged that you interject with clarification of terms used by teachers. You should not sit through a conference without knowing exactly what is being said. It took me over two years as an educator to learn the ever-growing terminologies!