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Some thoughts on How People Learn 6-8

February 10th, 2010 by Ben Allen Leave a reply »

So, several aspects of “How People Learn” were very refreshing to read, among them:

  • The focus on the importance of content in teaching, and moreover multiple types of content — both the content of the subject and pedagogical content knowledge.
  • The focus on a sort of productive ignorance, which is short-circuited for all sorts of learners, even teachers-as-learners, by environments which persuade learners to focus on not making errors.
  • But most especially, the way the text manages to simultaneously respect the differences between the strategies required to teach different content, while also consistently clustering or chunking these different strategies around deep underlying patterns. It seems to me that regardless of the domain being taught (history, math, physics, and even teaching itself), they present successful strategies as being based around not so much memorizing the content data of the field, but instead learning the characteristic ways of arranging data among practitioners of those fields, and the strengths of those methods of arrangement, and connecting those chunking methods to pre-existing strategies used by the learner and to the learner’s environment.

Now, this popped out for me for an array of reasons. One is the sheer joy of uncovering self-reference; I kept thinking “aha! they’re using their own strategies!” when they’d demonstrate the deep-level way that superficially different learning strategies deployed by experts in different fields ultimately resembled each other on a more significant level. Second, though, is that it got me thinking not just about the links between how experts in different fields approach their material, or just about how to teach that, but also about how it seems like teaching and design seem to share a lot of common features.
The word “metacognitive” shows up a lot in writing from rhetoric and composition, but to me, it seems like the useful term might be “metadata.” As our readings from the first week noted, the problem with managing information systems right now isn’t gathering information (in every significant field, there’s already too much of it for any human to handle), but instead presenting that data in ways that help users find the data that’s useful for them and that encourage them to link it in fruitful ways. Key to this is the concept of metadata — of marking documents with data that describes the nature of that document. Library catalog stuff — the title, the creator, the date of publication, and so forth — is generally included in metadata, but things like the tags that users can apply to posts on the Commons are metadata. Building a useful information system for use by academics seems weirdly similar to designing an effective curriculum. The goal in both places isn’t to provide all the information that needs to be covered, since there’s always going to be too much information to cover, but is instead to present information with the right metadata — metadata that indicates some of the useful rather than superficial connections that can be made discrete bits of information — and then encourage the learners or researchers to play with those connections.
Okay, looking back on that paragraph I’m realizing it’s more mechanistic than it should be — I guess the core “gee whiz!” realization is just that teaching and learning, in the model they present, seems to be about building useful connections between bits of information, and also that there’s a lot of work going on in fairly dry-seeming corners of information technology to implement that sort of connection-building in code.

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1 comment

  1. I’m thinking that when you talk about metadata you’re sort of talking about tags. That seems to be how we manage blog content. But yes the question is how can we manage and organize our knowledge data, and is there a way to centralize knowledge without indicating a preference aka canonizing…? I think it would be useful if all knowledge was centralized in some fashion, and then we can climb out on certain branches of the periphery…but who/how do we define center and periphery. Is Wikipedia a successful centralization of knowledge?

    I like the point about allowing students to make mistakes. My Arabic teacher is always saying that, make mistakes so I can correct them or you will never learn…make challenging sentences. Teaching composition it is a struggle as well because sometimes students misuse words and I think they are overreaching. Sometimes a student can take cognitive/logical risks even while using familiar vocabulary/form. Interesting how we all draw analogies to our own disciplines.

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