Learning by understanding

During the last week so many thoughts have been crisscrossing in my mind that it seems hard to grasp them. Education and learning technogy are such huge and complex concepts that it feels a bit overwhelming. However, I try to voice here some of the issues I have been thinking about and perhaps even learned something on the way in and outside the classroom.

What I’ve learned, and what current research in the field of education seem to ephasize, is that  i) students come to classes with preconceptions which need to be engaged for them to be able to grasp new concepts and information . ii) For developing competence students must have factual knowledge, but also understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organise knowlegde in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. (This can be called deep understanding). iii) Metacognitive approach to instructions can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving their goals.

So the emphasis in learning has  shifted from mere memorizing (being able to remember and repeat) of facts to learning by understanding. Without a doubt facts are important for thinking and problem solving, and what is meaningful is how the facts can be applied in different situations. What sets novises apart from experts is that experts have a rich body of usable knowledge, that they are able to transfer i.e. be able to use the information in other contexts and think about possible solutions to problems. On one of our lecturers last week Paul Kirschner talked about guided discovery versus unguided discovery. Experts can discover by exploring themselves whereas students are not experts, thus they need guidance.

21st century skills

I came across the concept of 21st century skills last week, and I was pretty excited about this, as this somehow opened my eyes to why it’s important to rething about what is taught, how it is taugh and how learning should be assessed.

The debade over what really are the 21st century skills is still ongoing, but the 4C’s seems quite prevalent:


On the lecture Paul Kirschner was asked about what he thought about the 21st century skills, and to my surprise he held the notion of  21st century skills as rather absurd. In his opinion children already posses those skills, and these are skills that have been needed already before the 21st century. Yes, true. However, I think, and having experience in working life, that these skills are highly needed and also valued. I see no harm in reinforcing these skills in students by actively using and rehearsing them in school.

Learning environments

So how do the above mentioned issues affect learning environments – what are good learning environments that take into account all these factors and goals of learning. It’s suggested that learning environments should be:

  • learner centered: it’s taken into account that learners bring different knowledge, skills and attitudes into the classroom
  • knowledge-centered: attention is given to what is taught, why it is taught (understanding), and what competence or mastery looks like
  • assessment centered: assessments should provide students with opportunities to revise and improve their thinking, help students see their own progress, and help teachers to identify possible problems that need to be remedied
  • community centered: norms in the classroom should be such that encourage risk-taking, opportunities to make mistakes, obtain feedback, and revise. Also, there should be ways to link classroom learning to other aspects of students’ lives

How does technology help in all this?

Not all old teaching methods and techniques need to be abandoned, but it needs to be carefully considered where and how new technology can be used to aid in learning. ICT should not be used just for the sake of having fancy technology in classroom, used “wrongly” it may even hamper the learning of the subject matter. On the other hand, nowadays ICT is very much present in all our lives and I cannot even begin to imagine what it will be like after 5 years or so. And the truth is that the younger generations (the so called digital natives) use ICT as everyday tools for finding and sharing information, so it would be foolish, if not even a huge mistake, not to take ICT as part of the tools in teaching in schools.

A practical example of my daughter, a 7-year-old, who just started in elementary school. She’s very clever in using a smart phone and a pad even though she does not know how to read yet. She’s downloading free games aimed for children and playing them without needing help from us, her parents.

Technology does not merely provide access to a multitude of information, but also because many new technologies are interactive, it is now easier to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive feedback, refine their understanding and build new knowledge. Technology enables bringing exciting new curricula based in real-life problems into the classroom. It also provides scaffold and tools to enhance learning. Technology also enables building local and global communities, which include for examples students, teachers, parents, and other interested people. Last but not least, technology enable teacher learning.

References: How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press


About kaipihla

A student in Learning, Education and Technology Master's degree program in University of Oulu, Finland.
This entry was posted in Learning and Educational Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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