ERIC Identifier: ED470032
Publication Date: 2002-10-00
Author: Driscoll, Marcy P.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
How People Learn (and What Technology Might Have To Do with
It). ERIC Digest.
At an educational conference last spring, I attended a session focused on the
potential of instructional technology to transform teaching and learning in
schools. One of the speakers told a story about his 14-year-old son who, like
himself, loved technology toys and always had to have the latest and greatest
new thing to come on the market. One day, this son went to school after
downloading to his Palm Pilot[TM] the program from the TV remote control. Then
in one of his classes, the boy used the program to turn on and off the
television in the corner of the room. The teacher was understandably annoyed,
and when she figured out who the culprit was, she hauled him off to the
principal's office demanding that the principal "do something!" At this point in
the story, the speaker paused and asked the audience to consider what an
appropriate response by the principal might be. Surely, this was a teachable
moment, for teacher and student. Although many of us are regular users of
Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), we are only beginning to imagine how the
technology might be used in the service of teaching and learning. So what did
the principal do? He banned it!
I offer this story not to malign the principal, but to argue that technology
integration in schools is not easy to achieve, no matter how much evidence we
have that it can help learning. It's also important to integrate technology
appropriately, as critics are quick to point out that computers, besides being
expensive, can harm young children who sit for hours in front of them instead of
being engaged in the "real world" (Alliance for Childhood, 2000). So what is
known about how people learn and the role technology may play in their learning?
How might that knowledge provide guidelines for appropriate uses of technology
that can help students and teachers? Four broad principles offer a framework to
teachers for thinking about how technology can support their instruction:
Learning occurs in context.
Learning is active.
Learning is social.
Learning is reflective.
LEARNING OCCURS IN CONTEXT
Read the following sentence: "The notes were sour because the seams split." What does it mean? Chances are
that you found the sentence confusing, even though all the words are common and
familiar. Now consider that the sentence is describing bagpipes and read it
again. I suspect it makes much better sense now. Without an appropriate context,
comprehension and learning are difficult and unlikely to succeed very well. Keep
in mind, however, that learners will attempt to make sense of anything
unfamiliar, just as you attempted to make sense of that sentence. When they do
so, they draw upon prior understandings and experience, but the meanings they
construct may be quite different from what was intended if they cannot activate
an appropriate context for learning. "Children are ignorant but not stupid:
Young children lack knowledge, but they do have abilities to reason with the
knowledge they understand" (National Research Council, 2000, p. 234).
Technology can facilitate learning by providing real world contexts that
engage learners in solving complex problems (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996;
Honebein, 1996; & Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1992). The
Jasper Woodbury Problem Solving Series (Cognition and Technology Group at
Vanderbilt, 1997), for example, is an interactive video environment that
presents mathematical problems through the adventures of a boy named Jasper. In
each episode, Jasper faces a challenge, such as figuring out how much fuel is
needed to fly an ultra-light aircraft into a remote area to rescue a stranded
eagle. Students must apply important concepts in mathematics to solve Jasper's
challenge. Because the video adventures are interesting, students are drawn into
them. Because the challenges are complex, students engage in problem solving for
extended periods of time. And because the episodes are designed to be sequential
and build upon previously acquired skills, students learn to transfer what they
know to new and unfamiliar problems.
Computer simulations and computer-based micro worlds also offer appropriate
contexts for learners to explore and come to understand complex phenomena in a
variety of subject areas (Rieber, 1996). For example, the popular SimCity
enables learners to explore what it's like to build and manage aspects of a
city, and with the Voyage of the Mimi, students can explore sea life and solve
problems while learning about whales.
LEARNING IS ACTIVE
Tell me, I forget.
Show me, I remember.
Involve me, I understand.
This proverb illustrates well the importance of getting learners mentally
involved in learning activities, generating connections between what they
already know and what they are being asked to learn and constructing meaning
from their experiences. When students become active participants in the
knowledge construction process, the focus of learning shifts from covering the
curriculum to working with ideas (Scardamalia, 2002). And using technology tools
"to think with" facilitates working with ideas and learning from that process.
Technology tools provide "the means through which individuals engage and
manipulate both resources and their own ideas" (Hannafin, Land, & Oliver,
1999, p. 128). Some kinds of technology tools can extend memory and make
thinking visible. Good examples include brainstorming and concept mapping
software such as Inspiration(r). Others help to represent knowledge and
facilitate communication. For instance, the Collaborative Visualization or CoVis
Project provides visualization software designed to help students collect and
analyze climatological data and visualize effects due to greenhouse gases and
other phenomena (e.g., Pea et al., 1997). Finally, some tools, like simulations
mentioned above, enable learners to experiment with modeling complex ideas.
NetLogo, for example, provides a programmable modeling environment for
simulating natural and social phenomena, such as how segregated neighborhoods
can arise, not from any specific bias, but from the simple desire of people to
live near others who are like themselves.
LEARNING IS SOCIAL
Teachers have long recognized the value
of having students work together in a group to accomplish some types of learning
tasks. Students benefit from hearing perspectives other than their own, and they
may bring different strengths to a complex and lengthy activity. However, a
social theory of learning reflects a fundamentally different view, where
knowledge "is a matter of competence with respect to valued enterprises" and
knowing "is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises" (Wenger, 1998, p. 4). Learning, then, amounts to increasing participation in and
contribution to the practices of a social community. Concepts such as knowledge
building, apprenticeship, and mentoring become paramount, as learners are
conceived to be under the tutelage of more experienced peers or instructors.
A social view of learning focuses attention on making connections among
students within a school and between students in the school and the broader
community. How can modern technologies support and enhance these connections?
CSILE (or Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environment; Scardamalia
& Bereiter, 1994) is one example of software that supports a networked,
multimedia environment in which students collaborate on learning activities.
They do this by creating 'notes' to express their ideas or integrate outside
information about a topic. Then they read and respond to the notes of others,
all of which builds a communal database producing shared knowledge about the
topic or problem.
The effects of CSILE have been notably positive, with students performing
better on standardized tests than their non-CSILE counterparts. CSILE students
also demonstrate greater depth in their explanations. At a conference reporting
some of the CSILE findings, Marlene Scardamalia read a few notes posted in one
class's database and challenged the audience to determine who wrote them - a
fourth grader, a college student, or a scientist. I sat in the back of the
auditorium and watched most of the hands go up as people thought the notes must
have been written by at least a college student, if not a scientist. In all
cases, however, the notes were written by fourth grade students in response to
the notes and questions of their peers.
With migration to the Internet, CSILE, now known as Knowledge Forum,
facilitates connections between schools and the scientific community, allowing
practicing scientists to serve as mentors to students. Other projects, such as
Kids as Global Scientists, also bring students and various experts together in
virtual communities through Internet links. Such "a dialogue-based approach to
learning creates a rich intellectual context, with ample opportunities for
participants to improve their understanding and become more personally involved
in explaining scientific phenomena" (National Research Council, 2000, p. 226).
LEARNING IS REFLECTIVE
In one of the graduate courses I
teach on emerging theories of learning, I want students to experience the
implications of the ideas they are studying. Thus, they might be required to
work in a group, participate in a class project, contribute to a
knowledge-building enterprise, and so on. Several times during the semester, I
ask students to reflect on their own learning, the functioning of their group,
and the operation of the class. A few years ago, early in the semester, students
complained so much about aspects of the course that I brought up the issues in
class (usually their reflections are confidential and sent to me by e-mail). One
individual who was a fifth grade teacher said, "Cooperative learning is fine for
kids. But I'm an adult! My learning shouldn't have to depend on anyone else." As
we discussed further how others felt about learning in a group, the same
individual spoke up again, this time rather bemused. She said, "Maybe I'm
reacting the same way my fifth graders do when I try something new with them." It was an important insight for her that was prompted by deliberate reflection
of the class on what it means and feels like to work in a learning group.
Learning is facilitated when students get feedback about their thinking,
whether that feedback comes from within, a teacher, or a peer. Then provided the
opportunity for revision, students can achieve at higher levels and reach deeper
understandings. Technologies that promote communication within and outside the
classroom make it easier for feedback, reflection, and revision to occur. Many
of the technology examples presented above facilitate reflection in the dialogue
that they promote among learners. Where dialogue or discussion is not inherent
in the tool, teachers bear the responsibility of initiating and guiding it.
A FEW PARTING THOUGHTS
Technology by itself does not
guarantee learning. Rather, it is in how teachers and students use available
technologies that determines whether transformative learning happens. Educators
can respond to the challenge like the principal who banned PDAs from his school.
Or they can explore the power of technology to help learners achieve important
outcomes. Understanding principles of learning is a good way to begin.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Alliance for Childhood.
(2000). Fools' gold: A critical look at computers and childhood. Available
Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1992). The Jasper experiment:
An exploration of issues in learning and instructional design. Educational
Technology Research & Development, 40, 65-80.
Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1997). The Jasper project:
Lessons in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction (2nd ed.).
Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Duffy, T. M., & Cunningham, D. J. (1996). Constructivism: Implications
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Hannafin, M., Land, S., & Oliver, K. (1999). Open learning environments:
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