Teaching Methods, The Science of Learning

Teaching is Fostering Learning

I have written numerous articles about The Science of Learning which is the evidence about how people learn, gained through robust, empirical observations, and how the principles extracted from those findings are applied to formal learning settings. Understanding and considering the application of the principles underlying The Science of Learning, as a means of providing students with the greatest opportunity to learn, leads to the formulation of techniques that use these principles as a way of looking at current practice and extracting, from the methods currently in widespread use, the principles of learning that underlie that method.

In addressing a comment on an earlier article about how reading and writing must be considered important learning skills, we need to remember that reading and writing are basic academic skills and are not techniques for teaching in and of themselves, nor are they considered higher order thinking skills. They are neither sufficient nor are they necessary for learning. They are vital tools that we use in our formalized methods of teaching and learning and have become integral in education as we know it.

From my perspective, the purpose of any teaching method is to foster learning (my definition of teaching).

Fostering learning begins with the transmission and retention of information and then making the necessary neural connections that would enable the information to become useful in the form of knowledge. Through the use of rudimentary thinking skills, acquired during the pre-adolescent stage of brain and cognitive development, knowledge is then transformed and incorporated into a more internally useful form which we refer to as understanding. Understanding then becomes the foundation on which we develop higher order thinking skills, skills that require cognitive development that allows for both the understanding of and manipulation of multiple abstract concepts through the use of skills that we would refer to as higher order thinking skills.

The higher order thinking skills that I am referring to and have written numerous articles about would include the following. Metacognition, or an awareness of and an ability to engage in analyzing and understanding internal thinking processes. This ability lies at the heart of any higher order thinking and lays a foundation upon which these skills are built.

Critical thinking is a higher order thinking skill that I have defined as:

The use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome and the ability to see both sides of an issue. To be a critical thinker, you must be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, be able to reason dispassionately, demand that claims be backed by good evidence, be able to deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and solve problems through the use of the afore mentioned abilities.

In order to engage in meaningful critical thinking, other thinking skills must be developed to the level of higher order thinking. Skills such as reason, inductive and deductive, both of which are important approaches to reason. Logical thinking which underlies reason at its most basic level. Rational thinking which uses logic and reason to arrive at internally valid, true beliefs. And finally creativity, the ability to use other higher order thinking skills to bring about the emergence of new and different ways of thinking and perceiving the world.

The mechanics of learning, from the acquisition and retention of information through to the creation of new ways of thinking and doing things, have been empirically studied for decades. There is a solid understanding, built on our current conceptualization of how the brain and cognition develop, of how learning occurs. The Science of Learning is taking the principles that underlie this understanding and applying them to the formal assistive process leading from the acquisition and retention of information through to the creation of new ways of thinking and doing things, teaching.

Although it appears that the application of The Science of Learning through the adoption of new teaching techniques or the adaptation of older teaching techniques in order to optimize the learning experience would seem to be the goal of anyone who thinks of themselves as a teacher, it is not. The resistance to The Science of Learning and the dogmatic clinging to techniques that have been proven to play a role in learning, but not the role envisioned by the teacher, displays a complete lack of critical thinking. Anyone who claims to be able to engage in critical thinking must, by definition, be able to consider new evidence and in light of that new evidence, be able to self-correct. This is not the case with the majority of teachers at any level in our society.

Unfortunately, for reasons that we partially understand (teacher cognition) in the area of teaching, critical thinking is not often found. Formal teacher training is not built on a foundation of empiricism but is built on centuries old traditions for which the only evidence for effectiveness is anecdotal. As a result, teachers who undergo formal education in teaching do not have the scientific foundation to understand the principles underlying The Science of Learning just as individuals without any empirical background have difficulty understanding or following the logic underlying global climate change. This is not the fault of those who do not have the necessary higher order thinking skills, it is simply that they have not been trained to use and manipulate the number of abstract concepts necessary to reach the understanding of an expert. Teacher education is one of the fields where the graduates show the smallest gains in higher order thinking skills (along with business management and a few other training fields).

However, in a higher education setting, where critical thinking, as well as the other higher order thinking skills, are supposed to be the foundation supporting the seat on knowledge, the rejection of The Science of Learning as the basis for teaching is unacceptable and has led to an untenable situation where a large minority of graduates from higher education institutions are unable to engage in higher order thinking and the majority of those who have gained some higher order thinking abilities are not sufficiently familiar or comfortable with these skills to demonstrate their acquisition.

Institutions housing the seats of learning must step up and begin to consider what science says about the way they prepare students to approach the problems society faces today. To continue to ignore what we know and cling with unreasonable dogmatism to the hallowed traditions that have been used for centuries is an abdication of our fundamental responsibility to society and marks the end of the age of enlightenment and the emergence of something dark and new, defined by irrationality, brute force, violence, and (in our modern day) guns. A transformation that we are observing every day in the world around us.

Welcome to the brave new world that we have played a pivotal role in shaping. At least we can step up now and try to mitigate the damage that is happening during this time of transformation through using every available method and tool to produce graduates capable and comfortable with using higher order thinking skills. It is either that or the loss of enlightenment to a brave new world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.