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Archive for July, 2011

The relatively new field of neuroeducation has made it clear that emotion plays a role in learning. Getting more specific, the field has shown that stress plays a role, a destructive role.

It turns out that stress prevents the human brain from developing optimally.  It does this by preventing neurogenesis from taking place.  Neurogenesis is our brain’s ability to create new neurons- brain cells.  If you grow up in a healthy and stable environment your brain is able to generate new neurons, which help you to learn.  Provide an enriched environment and you’re off to the races.  Stress takes you in the opposite direction of an enriched environment.

How does this inform the education paradigm-shift position?

Conventional environments create stress in students.  Whether it’s from the fear of failure and mistake making or the upcoming quiz, there are daily stressors for most students in a conventional environment.

The New Education Paradigm removes these stressors.  By placing the learner in greater control of her activities, by encouraging mistakes (in the spirit of risk-taking that is necessary to look for new questions and answers), by shifting to alternate modes of assessment, amongst other things, the new paradigm creates a rich environment that minimizes stress in the student/learner.  The result is a student who is not only motivated to participate and apply themselves fully, but a brain that is there to support them by creating the new neurons that they can then use to learn.

Now, if only we can get the prime movers in “industrial education” (new term) to catch up to  the science of the day, maybe we can begin to help more students sooner.  In the meantime, check out Montessori schools – they’ve understood this implicitly for decades.

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Recently it was brought to my attention that a new charter high  school in Chicago was being shaped by an innovative idea: allowing students to engage in meaning-making activities, based largely on game-theory.  This is intended to produce students who can think critically.

Meaning-making is indeed one of the necessary core outcomes of a true education, one which has generally failed to exist in the conventional model.  But, the  people behind this new charter program fail to grasp a key point: to direct students in their meaning-making cancels out the very thing you desire to achieve.

The subtle issue here is that of “idea generation”.  The person generating the idea is the one reaping the benefit.  Having others act upon the idea may have some value, if the idea is worthy, but what will not be developed is the ability to generate ideas- to be a critical  thinker, or a thinker at all.  It’s the genesis point that matters.

This new school calls what they’re doing “digital learning” and they explicitly talk about “getting kids hooked on learning” by making learning feel like a video game.  They talk about exploring things actively, with large video screens and tools that are wii-like, to demonstrate principles of physics, for example.

But, if you step back from all the tech jargon you see that it’s simply the latest smoke and mirrors attempt to deliver “content”, much the way conventional education always has.  It’s just the latest “use of technology”, after a long line of technological saviors of education (radio, television, computes, the internet).

In the end, the program description here contains all the misguided principles of old: it’s adult-directed, geared towards covering the curriculum and while the idea that students aren’t sitting in their seats all day long is good (let’s see in practice how it actually works out….) it’s not enough to make a fundamental difference.

Understanding what fundamental change in education looks like just seems to be so challenging, I’m coming to believe.  I guess that’s why paradigm changes are just that.

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A case has been made that universities need to shift from the present top-down and insular style to a more “learner”-based style.  It is argued that if we look at the end-users (students) and see how they already modify the system to met their needs, we can create a better system that relies on the self-organization of people: people taking ownership and control of their lives (learning) and making it fit.

While the point being argued for has merit, the premise that it relies on is weak: that college is getting too expensive and courses too often don’t relate to the problems faced in the real world. A stronger argument would be based on the premise that this style/model of learning simply makes more sense if you look at how people learn and are motivated.  Further, the model can and should be applied beyond the college level: younger students would also benefit from a more learner-centered approach, engaging them in problem-solving such that their learning will be the result of the efforts, mistakes and experimentation that they will themselves conceive of.

Actual learning occurs like the scientific method: conjecture and test –  try something and see what happens, repeat, learn.

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