How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom

I’m not going to dive too deep into pedagogy, even though it’s an important part of my master thesis. I’d rather collaborate or get help from someone educated in the field of pedagogy and teaching. However, I came across an interesting report yesterday and had to read it. The report, “How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom” (2005), by The National Research Council, is written by many and edited by M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford. I skipped the history and mathematics part, and didn’t really read the other parts as thoroughly as I would have if I had an unlimited amount of time and not thousands of other books on my reading list as well. Even though the report is targeted for teachers, it gave me insights about issues I need to be aware of when designing visual explanations:

  • Three fundamental and well-established principles of learning:
    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 and information, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom – new understandings are constructed on a foundation of existing understandings and experiences. Being learner-centered involves paying attention to students’ backgrounds and cultural values, as well as to their abilities. To build effectively on what learners bring to the classroom, teachers must pay close attention to individual students’ starting points and to their progress on learning tasks. They must present students with “just-manageable difficulties”—challenging enough to maintain engagement and yet not so challenging as to lead to discouragement. They must find the strengths that will help students connect with the information being taught. Unless these connections are made explicitly, they often remain inert and so do not support subsequent learning. Begin by engaging students in activities or discussions that draw out what they know or how they know, rather than beginning with new content.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
I find principle #1 very interesting, as this can be implemented in visual explanations (depending on how extensive they are) by using what the students think and know as a starting point or introduction to the visualization.
  • How People Learn emphasizes that instruction in any subject matter that does not explicitly address students’ everyday conceptions typically fails to help them refine or replace these conceptions with others that are scientifically more accurate. In fact, the pioneering research that signaled the tenacity of everyday experience and the challenge of conceptual change was done in the area of science, especially physics.
  • One of the most important aspects of science—yet perhaps one of the least emphasized in instruction—is that science involves processes of imagination. If students are not helped to experience this for themselves, science can seem dry and highly mechanical. Indeed, research on students’ perceptions of science indicates that “they see scientific work as dull and rarely rewarding, and scientists as bearded, balding, working alone in the laboratory, isolated and lonely. Few scientists we know would remain in the field of science if it were as boring as many students believe.
  • Lockstep approaches to conducting science experiments exclude the aspects of science that are probably the most gratifying and motivating to scientists—generating good questions and ways to explore them; learning by being surprised (at disconfirmations); seeing how the collective intelligence of the group can supersede the insights of people working solely as individuals; learning to “work smart” by adopting, adapting, and sometimes inventing tools and models; and experiencing the excitement of actually discovering—and sharing with friends—something that provides a new way of looking at the world.
  • Students need opportunities to explore the relationships among ideas. After students have had experiences and come up with ideas to summarize those experiences, it makes sense to introduce a technical term for ease of communication. Building an analogy from a situation students understand to one they do not can build understanding of the new situation. Students should be able to see science as involving many questions as yet unanswered.
  • 1. Draw on knowledge and experiences that students commonly bring to the classroom but are generally not activated with regard to the topic of study.
    2. Provide opportunities for students to experience discrepant events that allow them to come to terms with the shortcomings in their everyday models.
    3. Provide students with narrative accounts of the discovery of (targeted) knowledge or the development of (targeted) tools. (A narrative that places theory in its human context need not sacrifice any of the technical material to be learned, but can make that material more engaging and meaningful for students.)
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