The Takeaways: Meta-Reflection for Learners in Context

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!

References

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.

The Lessons Learned (So Far) in Learners in Context

Over the past several weeks, our Learners in Context (EDU6132) class has worked together to discuss issues of child and adolescent development and their implications for the classroom. We began our discussion by addressing the age old debate of Nature versus Nurture. As a class, we found that Michael Pressley and Christine B. McCormick in their Child and Adolescent Development for Educators (2007) confirmed what the vast majority of us already believed — mainly that both biological and environmental factors influence intelligence. Pressley and McCormick suggest that people are born with a range of capabilities, but it is our environment (from the proximate family-unit to the cultural opportunities afforded to us by the nation in which we live) that determines what range in our intellectual potential we will actually reach.

The issue of privilege featured prominently in our class discussion of Nature versus Nurture, as we discussed the implications of “high achievement” in Seattle classrooms and in our own lives. We came to the sad conclusion that socio-economic advantage and the educational opportunities it affords is instrumental in intellectual growth. So too, however, is a loving and supportive familial or other type of close-knit unit, which allows its benefactors its own set of intellectual advantages. Our class agreed that we as educators share a key role in helping our students reach their intellectual potential by providing both instructional and emotional support to each and every one of our students. The more we believe in our students’ capabilities, the better they perform.

Pressley and McCormick argue that certain motor, physical, and intellectual capabilities come in generally age-specific progressions. They explain, for example, that motor development starts quite early and improves dramatically from ages two to six (Pressley and McCormick, 42). Physical development too begins rapidly and slows until adolescence when puberty — and its concomitant physical changes and growth spurts — takes center-stage.

Pressley and McCormick rely heavily on Piaget’s four-stage theory of development to explain changes in human intellectual capacity. Together they describe Piaget’s sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage, explaining children’s’ transition from the use of unconscious motor skills to abstract thinking and problem-solving (Pressley and McCormick, 64).

By the latest stages of intellectual development, students are capable of engaging together in moral reasoning and discussion. Thomas Lickona’s techniques for stimulating socially responsible thinking and behavior were discussed at length in our class forum with classmates highlighting the fostering of cooperative learning, the discussion of moral issues affecting society, and the modeling of moral behavior at the instructional level as particularly important to moral instruction (Pressley and McCormick, 83).

It seems to me that my classmates agree that within the classroom, the teacher can certainly benefit from diagnosing his or her students in terms of Piaget’s stages. This allows teachers, many in our class argued, to better develop lesson plans that engage students’ intellectual capabilities and still push them to explore in collaborative and investigative ways that which lies beyond their capacity. This latter method can be called “cognitive conflict,” which Piaget argued as essential to cognitive development (i.e. the awareness of a lack of knowledge, and what needs to be known to accomplish a task). It is important to mention here, however, John Medina’s findings in Brain Rules (2014), as he dives into exploration of the neuro-anatomical makeup of the human brain, in that each individual brain is wired incredibly distinctly. The wiring is so distinct, in fact, that cognitive and motor functions may originate from different sections of the brain depending on the person (Medina, 96-97). Medina’s findings suggest that nothing can be so easily categorized in the neurological world, which is partially why neo-Piagetian theories that attempt to re-adapt the stages and skills explained by Piaget have sprung up anew with expanding research.

A discussion of particular interest to me has been that of constructivist approaches to education. In his chapter on Exploration, Medina discusses how by focusing too much on state standards and standardized assessments, it is all too easy to lose touch with the joy of learning and intellectual exploration (Medina, 256-257). My fellow classmates agreed with Medina and, like him, have made clear through our class discussion that student-centered, investigative learning, in which teachers introduce engaging and active activities to the classroom, is by far the most effective type of instruction. Students are more likely to remember and understand information they worked actively to explore themselves (Medina,139-140). Pressley and McCormick discuss Deweyan, Piagetian, and Kolhbergian progressive approaches to education, concluding that “such natural interactions permit the child to construct understanding of the world…resulting in much more complete understanding than would cultural transmission of the same ideas” (Pressley and McCormick, 84).

We as instructors can literally help shape our students’ brains — along with their active participation, of course — and help them reach their fullest potential. Just as Medina says, “when you learn something, the [very] wiring in your brain changes” (Medina, 86). If that is true, it is best that we as educators understand a bit about how the brain changes and develops and how deliberate instruction can influence this process at every age, in every new classroom, and with each novel piece of information.

Child and Adolescent Development in the Classroom

While I have never formally studied psychology as a discipline, both of my parents were professional psychologists at one – or rather, many – points in their long careers. Dinner table conversations, then, were more often than not centered on the day’s feelings, conflict, and victories. My parents avoided assigning textbook diagnoses to what it was we discussed, but ensured that I would forever be familiar and comfortable with psychological concepts and its practice.

I still admittedly know far too little about the psychological research and theories out there in the academic literature. My understanding of child and adolescent development, therefore, is more conceptual than it is learned and empirical.

I know that child and adolescent development are often categorized into stages. Each stage has a unique quality that the stage before it didn’t have, and they all build upon each other. In one stage, for instance, a child may not understand that an object exists even when not looking at it. In the next they may realize that even when hidden or out of sight, that object still does in fact exist. In the next stage, the child may begin to associate objects, and their absence, with symbols, images, or words (see Piaget’s stages of development). The stages begin with complete human dependency and increase in levels of autonomy as they progress.

By the adolescent stages of development the child is fully autonomous and can think in more rational and abstract terms. By this point, adolescents engage in more sophisticated self-analysis and identity formation. This is often a very inward-focused time, but many begin to consider outward judgments in their self-development. This is why at this stage adolescents may become more egocentric, concerned with popularity, prone to bullying, etc…

Adolescence is also a time of profound physical changes. Bodies go through puberty and become aware of their sexual proclivities. This, understandably, adds to the stress of the age, but also is a product of the physical and mental development needed to form an unyielding sense of self. What is important to note about the intellectual, physical, and emotional changes in the adolescent stages – as with all stages of development – is that none are completely universal, and each person will go through them in different ways and at different times.

In my own high school classroom I will often have to consider these changes to better understand adolescent behavior in the classroom. In the high school classroom, after all, it is sometimes easy for a teacher to assume that his or her students are already fully-developed, and thus know themselves and their minds well enough to engage fully in the tasks at hand. While this may sometimes be true, adults need to be careful in acknowledging that while teenagers are fully capable, they may have more reservations or personal needs to be addressed within the classroom space. Without a well-formed sense of identity, students may struggle with how to interpret texts or be more self-conscious about how it is they talk about classroom topics. This is normal and part of learning, but an effective educator tries to predict these struggles and works with those that he or she could not foresee as they come.

It is also important to remember that this process of self-discovery does not end in adolescence; it simply begins there. Our students, then, will constantly be teaching us about ourselves and our own philosophies of instruction. We would be wise to listen to these intelligent rookies!

Characteristics of an Effective Educator

Describing the qualities of an effective educator is no easy task. You have to see such an educator in action to best understand the ineffable.

If you were in fact lucky enough to see this particularly fine educator, you’d see one who, while possessing great knowledge of his or her subject, viewed him or herlsef as among equals in the classroom. Effective teachers know they have just as much or more to learn from their students as they do to teach them.

The effective educator knows that he or she is an eternal learner and student as much as he or she is a teacher. Quality teachers aren’t always at the front of the classroom, then – sometimes you’ll find them seated among students, engaged in discussion, other times students are at the front of the classroom as these teachers sit at a desk attentively. The effective teacher may even change up the classroom composition all together so there is no more front, or back, to the classroom at all, just a group of eager learners thinking together.

The effective educator prizes not only knowledge of particular fields, but also – and in some ways, even more importantly – the learned gift of critical thought. While this teacher may present his or her students with information from a variety of texts and sources and facilitate discussion about them, he or she always asks students to dive into deeper inquiry. This teacher expects his or her students to investigate in order to form opinions, and once opinions are formed to forcefully express them and be willing to change them all at once

The effective educator forces students to think for themselves, even when such individual thought seems uncomfortable or daunting, for he or she is always there to help question and contextualize.

The effective educator knows that education spans far beyond the classroom walls. These teachers help arm their students with the skills needed for them to begin and engage fully in meaningful household conversations, community projects, and civic movements. The effective educator leads his or her students out of the classroom, bringing them to new places around the city – the country, the world – and asks students to discover their surroundings – and new places – through innovative projects of investigation.

The effective educator arrives before the school day begins and is present for his or her students long after the school day is through, for he or she knows the job, and learning, extend well beyond the school day. These teachers live and breathe their job, because teaching to them is as integral to their body and soul as breathe itself. This is not to say that the effective educator has no life of his or her own. No, quite the contrary! The teacher must constantly be doing, learning, and growing. Whether it is through a new, challenging social interaction or an eye-opening, educational trip, the effective educator is constantly learning and applying that fresh and gathered knowledge to all aspects of the school environment.

In sum, the most effective educators are committed and open to life-long learning as well as the lessons of their students and the world around them. Though all of that hardly does them justice!

Jordana Hoyt's Teacher Training Blog