My Definition of Learning
My view of learning is that it is a dynamic, complex system and network. This is the moral of twentieth century psychology. Learning takes place in and through our neurons (neuroscience), our brains (traditional cognitive science), our bodies (4EA cognitive science), our behaviors/actions (behaviorism, activity theory), our tools (extended cognitve theory, activity theory), our environments (ecological psychology), our social connections and larger cultures, of which we are a part (socio-cultural learning theory). Therefore, designers of educational experiences should, ideally, take a holistic perspective. When working on a design problem, the trick is to figure out which theoretical approaches are most germane to the problem at hand while being sensitive to the larger, theoretical whole.
10 Aphorisms for Teaching and Mentorship
1. Learning is holistic
We now know that learning is in our neurons, in our heads (cognition), in our bodies (embodied cognition), in our behavior and activities, in our tools and environments (situated cognition, 4EA cognition, and ecological psychology), in our social connections, and in our larger cultures of which we’re a part (communities of practice and affinity groups). In other words, learning is a complex, dynamic network, and the challenge of teaching is understanding how to manage this network. This is what the best instructional methods such as model instruction and peer instruction in physics education do.
2. Learning begins in concrete practice.
The great mathematician, David Hilbert, advised to begin with the simplest examples. If you can’t understand the simple things, the difficult things will be out of reach. James Paul Gee often points out how giving textbooks to students without providing meaningful experiences first is like asking someone to understand a (video) game just by reading the manual. Information is meaningless without context. With context, information becomes knowledge.
3. Feedback must come early and often.
Speaking of textbooks, I hate textbooks where there are problem sets with absolutely no answers. Mathematicians are often guilty of this. It’s even more frustrating when there are no examples, which could be guides to a solution. Few things feel as frustrating as being stuck. It’s hard to blame students for wanting to quit when they can’t make progress. If your students become stuck, you may not fully understand your audience as an instructor. Therefore:
4. Feedback must come early and often to the instructor, too.
When designing instruction, you must know your audience. I’ve learned this the hard way. The first university course I taught was a human-computer interaction course for undergraduate students. I used mostly notes to teach the course with selections from multiple books. This was a mistake as it didn’t provide enough structure for them. I didn’t know my audience well enough and didn’t have a feedback mechanism in place for myself. When I taught the course again, I used a different approach, and it was a better experience for everyone. It’s imperative to have a good feedback loop to make adjustments from the beginning.
5. Learning experience creation is prototyping
We rarely get things right the first time. Designing learning experiences including classes is no exception.
6. Action is more important than a lecture.
Instructional time should be used for hands-on work as much as possible. Lecturing can waste time and insult students’ intelligence. It’s been shown in physics education that lectures are not effective since students have false but common sense beliefs that only active work can dispel. Learning experiences should use pedagogical approaches such as model instruction and peer instruction as much as possible. These approaches respect students’ intelligence and tap into the power of the social connections of a community. Students who have just mastered a subject are probably better than I am at understanding the obstacles to mastery and describing how to overcome those obstacles. Traditional lecture materials should be made available online.
7. Mastery appears in different ways.
Students should be allowed to show mastery in different ways as much as possible. Students should be encouraged to do work that is part of a larger portfolio for their future careers, and students should be encouraged to make connections across courses as much as possible. Giving students self-determination forces them to articulate goals and form plans of action. This can make assessment more difficult, but assessment involves value judgements anyway no matter how objective we try to be as instructors.
8. Accomplishment is inspiring.
Lee Sheldon has explored ideas for applying game design to courses that are worth further consideration. For example, leveling up in a course is far more positive than being docked points for mistakes. Students need to see the trajectory of their progress as concretely as possible.
9. We all deserve more than a second chance.
I’ve had the wonderful privilege of being a programmer on a student team that created an award-winning video game, PeaceMaker, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The thing is, I didn’t come to programming until after my undergraduate studies. When I was in college, my first brush with programming was a disaster. I failed the midterm for the introductory programming course, and I ran. A couple of years later, though, I decided to try again and started programming, and now it’s an integral part of my life. Things don’t always work out the first time around—or even the second time around. Students deserve at least a second chance. We penalize and run from failure far too quickly.
10. Don’t forget to teach the other stuff.
There is more to learning a subject than content, skills, attitudes, and practices. We need to teach how to create and manage goals, and we need to teach how to manage obstacles. We must always be mindful, however, of the challenges that learners face. Outside forces, over which students and their instructors have no control, can overwhelm students and rob them of learning opportunities. Finally, we must teach the soft skills necessary to any professional practice and give students the opportunity to develop these skills by solving problems on teams. Understanding team dynamics and knowing how to treat people well are the most consequential skills of all.