Thursday, February 16, 2012

Basic principles of learning

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Learning (see What is learning? for definitions) is an essential element of all animals - especially mammals. Six basic principles of learning can be identified:
    Motivation/ Readiness principle. In order to learn, a person's basic needs must be met (See Maslow's hierarchy of needs). The person must be motivated to learn something (See Reflections on education and motivation). A person is motivated to learn something when something is relevant [See Meaningful/ Relevant principle] and gets reinforced [See Reinforcement principle].
    Meaningful/ Relevant principle: New knowledge or skills needs to be relevant to the learner. New knowledge is relevant when the learner can build connections to existing knowledge (-> This is the basic idea of constructivism) and can apply the new knowledge in specific contexts. In order to understand a topic, one must understand the way ideas fit together to identify patterns, contrast/ compare new ideas to existing ideas, revise older ideas, categorize ideas, and connect ideas. These learning principles are part of Knowledge Integration (KI) framework, proposed by Prof. Marcia C. Linn.
    Reinforcement principleThe principle of effect is that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling (positive reinforcement), and that learning is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling (negative reinforcement). People are more likely to continue learning when they experienced positive reinforcement.
    Repetition principleThe principle of exercise (= repetition) states that those things most often repeated are best remembered. The mind can rarely retain, evaluate, and apply new ideas or practices after a single exposure. Students do not learn complex tasks in a single session. To learn something, a person needs to apply the new idea repeatedly in different contexts. Ideally, a learner can implement deliberate (reflective) practice: 1) "Sharpen your saw"; 2) Metacognitive reflection of one's performance; 3) Measure one's performance. Learning through repetition is an ancient principle - Aristotle said "We are what we frequently do".
    Learning by Doing principleLearning from personal experience. The best way to learn something is by actually doing or experiencing it, for example through lab exercises, inquiry activities, give a demonstration, explanation generation, model building (physical or digital), drawing, teaching others, or role playing. Confucius said "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand."
    Learning from observing principle (Also called vicarious learning, learning from modeling, or learning by imitation): A person can learn from another more capable person (for example a master, an expert, an older peer, or a parent). A person can learn from others by watching him/her performing, by imitating him/her, or getting feedback/critique from him/her. The learner builds a social learning network (See work of Bandura). By learning from others, the learner enters a cognitive apprenticeship (See work of Collins).
These six basic learning principles are connected to each other in multiple ways.

Why science education?

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On the importance of science education

By Beat A. Schwendimann

Science education (leading towards scientific literacy) is of central importance for a modern democratic society. There are several ways to argue for the importance of science education: 1) Civic-democratic-utilitarian; 2) Vocational; 3) Aesthetic; and 4) Historic-cultural-social perspective.

The four perspectives use the theory of evolution as an example for learning a central scientific theory.

Civic-Democratic-Utilitarian perspective:
Scientific literacy is required for a democracy. Democracies build on citizens being able to make informed personal and community decisions about issues in which scientific information plays a fundamental role, and they hence need a knowledge of science as well as an understanding of scientific methodology (Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007; Trefil, 2008). As John Dewey pointed out, only a “learning society” (democracy) comprised of scientifically literate citizens is adaptive enough to strive in the long run (Dewey, 1916).
            Modern biology, in particular genetics, is on the brink of giving us unprecedented power, from personalized gene therapy to delaying the effects of aging. Society’s views if and how this new knowledge should be used will be shaped by people’s understanding of their evolutionary origins. Evolution is directly relevant to many policy decisions and allows citizens to make informed decisions, for example: Infectious diseases from tuberculosis to wheat rust are making a comeback as they evolve resistance to our defenses; Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a growing problem; New deadly viruses might evolve the ability to jump species at any time and spread through our globalized world causing a devastating pandemic.
            Grasping the reality and seriousness of such threats and making informed decisions requires citizens to understand evolution. Citizens need to be able to make informed decisions on a wide variety of evolution-related issues such as vaccinations, genetically-altered food, gene therapy, cloning, genetic counseling, and stem cell research. Understanding evolution allows us to understand the effects our changes to the environments have on many species: For example, fishing policies that allow fishermen to keep only large fish are leading to the evolution of smaller fish (Le Page, 2008); rats are becoming resistant to poison; and urban songbirds change their songs to counter noise pollution (Yong, 2008).
            Education needs to empower and motivate students to continue learning about current scientific findings after they leave school. Situating evolution ideas in realistic contexts can make ideas meaningful and applicable. Only through lifelong continuous learning can we make evidence-based informed decisions, which is fostered by knowledge integration, including situating ideas in realistic contexts.

Vocational perspective:
Science education has a dual goal: To produce scientifically literate citizens and to produce scientifically proficient scientists (Duschl et al., 2007). For some students, careers depending on biology will become a lifelong vocation. Nations depend on the technical and scientific abilities of their citizens for their economic competitiveness and national needs. Professions in biotechnology, pharmaceutics, healthcare, and agriculture require a thorough understanding of genetics and evolution. The ideas of evolution are of increasing importance in a wide variety of research fields, for example evolutionary developmental biology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary engineering, evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary economics, evolutionary computation, evolutionary ecology, evolutionary medicine, evolutionary microbiology, evolutionary philosophy, evolutionary analysis in law, paleontology, exobiology, climate change, and even evolutionary religious studies.

Aesthetic perspective:
Understanding evolution means understanding the changes in organisms over time, both on a macroscopic and a genetic level. Understanding evolution on multiple levels allows us to connect current forms and events in nature to preceding processes. The world looks different depending on whether you view humans as the perfect finished product or as an imperfect animal thrown up by a cruel evolutionary process. Understanding evolution allows people to see the current world in a historic context and understand the mechanisms that lead to current forms. Understanding evolution allows people to have a historic perspective on changes in the world. It helps to understand the origins of human behavior and human society structures by looking at them as adaptations to certain environments (Wilson, 2005). Understanding evolution can enhance our personal view of the world, for example our appreciation of the complex beauty of nature. Catley  (2006) notes that “[t]he sense of humility gained through an appreciation of the kinship of all life is a vitally important component in nurturing a stewardship ethic for a planet moving ever deeper toward ecological collapse… [which could] have momentous reverberations for future generations” (p. 781). Evolution and genetics ideas are frequently used in popular books and movies. Many books refer to evolutionary theory to explain a wide range of phenomena, from obesity (D'Adamo, D'Adamo, & Whitney, 1996), violent behavior (Brody, 1998; Wilson, 2000), disease control (Goode, 2000), to changing perceptions of race (Shane, 1999; Wolpoff & Caspari, 1997).

Historic-cultural-social perspective:
Evolution represents a major cultural achievement and a historic milestone in culturally understanding. Evolution fundamentally changed the way we see our world and ourselves. Understanding the origins and cultural impacts of evolution is an important aspect of being scientifically literate. Learning about evolution is closely connected to the history of science, nature of science, and epistemology. Teaching biology without evolution is the equivalent of teaching physics without the theory of gravity, or teaching about diseases without germ theory.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A vision of the classroom of the future?

Corning is a leading specialty glass and ceramics manufacturer. To showcase future uses of their glass, they created the video "A Day Made of Glass".

This video shows visions for home life, school, and work - all using touch sensitive glass that doubles as computer displays. I found the vision for the classroom of the future of particular interest. I'll break the scene down into separate pictures for further discussion.

The video shows two girls in school uniforms entering a modern elementary school building. Upon entering the classroom, they dock their tablet computers in their desks. [Click on picture to enlarge]

This action automatically uploads their homework and takes their attendance (as shown on the floor-to-ceiling screen in the front). The student's desk automatically opens a digital notebook for note taking, a calendar, a virtual keyboard, and a chat folder with student questions. From personal experience, typing on digital keyboards is cumbersome and slow. [Click on picture to enlarge]

The teacher uses her floor-to-ceiling touch screen to call up today's lesson: A physics lesson on optics. The wall screen also offers room controls (e.g. light dimmer). The teacher's actions on the main screen are mirrored on each students' screen. I don't know what the mirroring function serves: It seems it would distract students from looking at the main screen. [Click on picture to enlarge]

The teacher uses an interactive mindmap diagram to search through different topics. Through a drag-and-drop motion, the teacher transfers a physics activity to a multitouch table. I wonder if all the activities are created and scripted by for-profit education companies. This would leave the teacher hardly any creative freedom in which she could apply her expertise. [Click on picture to enlarge]

The students gather around the multitouch table for an optics activity. The students drag-and-drop color circles to explore additive color combinations. I found it noticeable that the class consists of only ten students. This optics activity could easily be achieved using real coloured glass and a light beam. Physics is about exploring the natural world, for which a computer activity provides no physical evidence. Computer-enhanced activities can be useful when showing phenomena that are too large/small or too fast/slow to experience directly. The goal should not become to replace all real-life experiments with computers simulations, but to carefully decide when which activity is more effective. [Click on picture to enlarge].
In a later scene, the students are seen on a field trip to a forest where they use their tablet computers for an augmented reality activity. [Click on picture to enlarge]
The Corning video makes no mention of the costs or durability of these glass-based tablet computers. Given the current financial situations of many public schools, such technology seems only affordable by wealthy private schools (as implied in the video).

The Corning video resembles Microsoft's vision of the classroom of the future: