Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Carl Wieman: optimizing learning

Optimizing Science Education and the Myth of a Necessary 'Super Teacher' by Carl Wieman (an educator who also happens to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for creating a new ultracold state of matter, the so-called Bose-Einstein condensate)

This is written from the perspective of University students and teachers. Nevertheless, it is also a very interesting commentary about learning theory and the role of technology in education in general.

I've been saying for some time that there is no unified learning theory and that good teachers cherry pick from a variety of approaches. Wieman's approach plays nicely with my views.

His debunking of Myth 1 is valuable:
Myth I. Optimum teaching and learning styles are specific to each individual teacher and student
He argues that good teaching can be learnt and that the concept of individual idiosyncratic student learning is sometimes overdone

His learning model is built on four principles, which I paraphrase / rehash as follows:
  1. Current state - we build on what we already know
  2. Effort - extended, focused effort it required for deep learning
  3. Motivation - we learn more when motivated and we are more motivated when we know why it is of value
  4. Memory - there are limits to our short term memory and instructional design needs to take account of that
These similarities in how we learn dwarf any alleged differences in learning styles. Individual differences and gaps in knowledge can be systematically categorised and built into the instructional design framework. I'm familiar with this from using the interactive Learning in Science approach (Osborne / Freyberg), which systematically explores children's existing views of various scientific phenomena.

Timely well targeted feedback which directly addresses ones reasoning and says what is right and wrong about it is very valuable. (As part of the optimization approach he subsequently argues that if teachers had marking assistants then this feedback would be more timely and could even make larger class sizes realistic)

I would argue that the principles which comprise Wieman's model are all necessary but not exhaustive. For example, the Idit Harel approach to teaching fractions (Instructional Software Design Project) incorporates all of Wieman's principles, either explicitly or implicitly, but has far more constructionist emphasis
Myth 2. Educational technology is a crutch for poor teachers but unnecessary for good ones
Wieman identifies the value of computer simulations that provide suitable challenges and timely, effective feedback and evaluation of student strengths and weaknesses. He points out that an expert instructor is still essential because computer programs are currently at the point of identifying student thinking and not yet so good at providing regular effective feedback

This fits in with Alan Kay's observation that computer based mentoring systems still have some way to go (... the dynabook is not here yet)

Once again, Wieman's approach is a good one but I think the Idit Harel study cited above is more adventurous in its use of computers

There is more to the Wieman article. His focus is about how to optimize university instruction to increase effectiveness and productivity. His critique of current practices in Universities is most enlightening. The whole article is well argued, well written, worth reading in full and much of it is applicable in other (non university) settings.

1 comment:

Tony Forster said...

Yes, I think that the learning styles and multiple intelligences stuff can be overdone.

Wieman does not reject the idea that we need to work individually to construct our own understandings

"learning any serious subject requires extended focused effort to construct one’s own understanding"

this is where learning is individualised, where the learning environment should be a rich playground of unanswered questions and paradoxes so the learner can test the mental model that they are building and make adjustments.