Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning environments (more from "How Students Learn...")

Donovan and Bransford (2005) describe four types of environments, "centered on" learners, content, assessment, and community.
  1. Learner-centered environment. Here we start with what the learner knows, and help the student expand beyond that. Typically, we connect to that existing knowledge as a base, and build outward and upward. Occasionally, we have to carefully remove what was already built before building onward. Related to this, we have to provide manageable, yet challenging tasks, and give them the tools, so students feel challenged and empowered rather than hopeless and frustrated.
  2. Content- or Knowledge-centered environment. Here we begin with three questions: (i) what is important for students to know and be able to do? (ii) what are the core concepts we use for organization, and what are the case studies or detailed knowledge that embody those concepts? (iii) How will we know that students have mastered this knowledge and these concepts? Although items (i) and (iii) overlap with the Learner- and Assessment-centered approaches, item (ii) is the core. It appears critical that specific case studies be understood as exemplars of more general concepts, and that concepts provide a framework for understanding other specific cases. Here I will suggest that students understand that there are usually multiple conceptual frameworks by which we might perceive and understand a specific phenomenon. The authors contend that textbooks tend to focus on the facts and less on the conceptual frameworks. I observe that that is true for the ecology texts I am most familiar with.
  3. Assessment-centered environment. Formative assessment is essential because it makes the success and failure of learning clear to both students and teachers. Such assessments can help both students and teachers identify preconceptions, and to track change in understanding over time. Seeing this change over time helps students understand better where they are and how they got there. These assessments are tools students and teachers need to use in the service of building knowledge.
  4. Community-centered environment. In this environment, we create a place or context that rewards participation rather than correctness, because mistakes, preconceptions, and dogma are all good starting places for real learning. In addition, students are more engaged when participating, and this participation results in a positive feedback loop wherein participation begets enjoyment, enjoyment begets participation, and it all facilitates learning.

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