In this summer quarter’s Learners in Context (EDU6132) course, our class has focused on child and adolescent psychological development. Pressley and McCormick (2007) introduced us to several theories of development and how we can apply these to the classroom while Medina (2014) described how it is that the human brain works, and works best. This course has already informed my professional practice, and has gotten me thinking about how I can use the big ideas – and even some of that minutia – we have discussed together as a class as a source of professional growth. This course has also allowed me to explore intellectual diversity in new depth, and has equipped me with more tools to work closely and confidently with exceptional learners.
When I came into this course I knew little about child and adolescent psychological development. I had a broad understanding of some of the big concepts, like the Nature vs. Nurture debate, but not about specific theories that informed such concepts, like Piaget’s developmental stages or Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. I felt my broad understanding was enough to get me by, but I have realized that the most talented teachers are well versed in psychological theories and are really amateur brain scientists. They learn all they can about their students’ psychological development and learning habits, and use background knowledge of psychological theories and learning techniques to find resources to better serve individual learners.
We began our course this summer quarter with a discussion about the age-old debate of Nature vs. Nurture, and its fruits have colored our classroom discussion board ever since. Pressley and McCormick (2007) importantly argued that humans are in fact born with a range of capabilities, but it is our environment that determines the intellectual potential that we actually achieve (p. 4). Medina (2014) expands on the essentials of a “good environment,” explaining adequate nutrition, sleep, exercise, familial support, and tools to work through chronic stress are necessary for the development of a strong mind.
As a class we spoke in detail about the advantages given to those born into emotionally supportive and financially stable environments. Importantly, we questioned to what degree intelligence hinged on parent involvement and privilege – and found the two are often intertwined. The involved parent, after all, is more apt to find resources for their child to help students struggling find support and students excelling find opportunities for further intellectual growth. While chronic stress can pervade any household, the involved parent knows better how to help their child through trying situations and, although unfairly, the privileged parent has more resources at their disposal to provide needed support. Each student’s natural capabilities and home environments differ, and as educators we must recognize and honor this type of intellectual and social diversity. As an educator I realize that I too have a part in making a child’s environment a better one, and must offer not only intellectual but also emotional support to my students to make sure they have an even better chance of reaching their highest learning potential.
The next discussion that has permeated our classroom message boards throughout the semester has been that of cognitive conflict. Piaget explained that to grow incrementally through the developmental stages, children had to be pushed beyond their already acquired skills and begin exercising the new ones needed for progression. Pressley and McCormick (2007) agree that this cognitive conflict, or push to use still undeveloped new skills, “is necessary for cognitive change to take place” (p. 69). As educators we must push our students to become active participants in their own learning and ask that they flex still untrained muscles. As a class, we discussed that teachers must be cognizant of what Vygotsky calls the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which suggests teachers should engage their students in things that they are close to understanding, but could not accomplish without teacher guidance (Pressley and McCormick, 2007, p. 156). Personally, I plan to scaffold my lessons so that students gradually acquire the skills they need to ultimately perform tasks without my direct facilitation. Once students can perform the given task on their own, I as a teacher know that it is time to move on to tackling the next challenge in partnership with my students.
An important thing I have learned in this course is that no one goes through the cognitive stages of development uniformly – some students take more times, and some are unable to acquire certain skills at all – and as teachers we must think critically about this cognitive diversity and plan our lessons accordingly. We must provide additional support or challenges based on our understanding of our student’s psychological and intellectual needs, and we must always consider how to keep all students, regardless of individual learning needs, cognitively challenged and engaged.
Our class agreed that the tenets of constructivist educational theory allow for this type of cognitive conflict to take place in the classroom. The idea really behind constructivism is that through investigative and exploratory learning, students can construct their own understanding of the world around them. Pressley and McCormick (2007) explain that this individual or collaborative student discovery allows for a “much more complete understanding than…cultural transmission of the same ideas” (p. 84). Medina (2014) insists that we must harness our “natural exploratory tendencies by using ‘problem-based’ or ‘discovery-based’ learning models” in the classroom (p. 12). I plan to use these types of models in my future classroom, encouraging my students to investigate and discover. Perhaps the most impactful comment posted on our discussion board all summer quarter was by my classmate Bonnie Christianson, who said, “The days of ‘teacher talk’ being the bulk of teaching are, I hope, a thing of the past…Ideally, I like to think of myself as a resource/facilitator. I can introduce a topic and then give the students a chance to experiment with new words or concepts” (Classroom Discussion Board, July 2015). I really couldn’t agree more and imagine my future role between the classroom walls as this “resource/facilitator.”
Currently, I am reflecting on the takeaways of this course, or what it is I will remember in the future about it. I think that we as teachers need to constantly think about these takeaways, or the central foci, of a given course or lesson segment. I have been asking myself “what is the point of cognitively challenging my students and asking that they construct their own meaning of the topics we cover together if they are not left with some enduring understanding, some memory of it all?” Here, Medina (2007) helped me a great deal. He agrees that this sort of constructivist, exploratory approach to learning that I have discussed above does more easily allow for a genuine encoding of the information at hand (p.138). He explains that learning is best remembered when it was introduced in meaningful ways and is more easily recalled when the learning process itself is personal, “elaborate, meaningful and contextual” (Medina, 2007, p. 138). In moving forward I will use some of Medina’s prescriptive ideas for memory facilitation such as introducing lessons with an interesting “hook” (p. 140) so the lesson content can be more easily recalled, integrating these so called “hooks” throughout class in small intervals to re-grab student attention (p. 120), using multi-sensory activities (p. 179) to get students activating different parts of their brain, getting students moving (p. 27) to better focus, and reiterating information to help “fix memory” (p. 148).
These and many more ideas will stick with me and inform my teaching practice. Coming into this course I thought an overall grasp of human psychology was sufficient for teaching, but I now understand that a more detailed knowledge of psychological research and effective learning techniques is absolutely essential to be an effective educator. This course has left me better equipped to understand and support diverse student psychology and learning habits. I now have a firmer grasp of the tenets of the Nature vs. Nurture debate and know that I as an educator must support my students both intellectually and emotionally. I now also know that I need to constantly challenge my students through cognitive conflict, and facilitate their cognitive growth. I’ll encourage my students to become active participants in their own learning and help them construct meaning out of the world around them. Ultimately, I hope that each one of my students remembers the big ideas of my course, and uses them to inform and guide future learning endeavors, just as I will with this very course.
Thank you Dr. Youde for a thought-provoking and formative class!
Medina, J. (2014) Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.
Pressley, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York: The Guilford Press.