Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Deciding What to Teach and Learn

I noticed that the keynote speaker on Thursday night for the upcoming AACU Conference on Integrative Learning is Veronica Boix Mansilla.

Mansilla is Lecturer, Graduate School of Education, and Principal Investigator with Project Zero, Harvard University.

Upon seeing her name in the program and realizing she was part of Project Zero I was reminded of the respect I've held for Project Zero for many years. I've always thought it a shame that not more educators know who they are or what they do.

Howard Gardner, who wrote Five Minds for the Future (which one of the CORE committees is reading) is also part of Project Zero. As is my hero, David Perkins, from whom you shall hear more in a moment.

In case you are curious, the reason Project Zero has the zero in its name is it's founder believed that "... learning should be studied as a serious cognitive activity, but that "zero" had been firmly established about the field."

Their mission, then is "to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels."

But I digress.

In Smart Schools which was published in 1992, Perkins included a section he called Theory One.

As we embark on the task of deciding what this much ballyhooed Learning Framework/s? course ought to be, I thought it might be helpful to review what he said.

So here it is straight from page 45: Theory One.

A rather good theory of teaching and learning can be stated in a single sentence.The theory is not terribly sophisticated. It does not require elaborate laboratory research to test and justify. But pursuing its implications can take us a long way toward a much improved vision of classroom practice. So simple is this theory, so much a rough-hewn, first-order approximation to the conditions that foster learning, that we will call it Theory One, saving higher numbers for fancier theories.

Theory One says this:

People learn much of what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn.

How could so outrageously bland a statement about teaching possibly imply anything about better classroom practice? Admittedly, Theory One seems entirely too mousy for the job. But this is the Mouse That Roared. To see its power, we need to elaborate somewhat on the implications of the one-sentence version of Theory One. What is "reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn."? Without resorting to any technical knowledge about learning, one might commonsensically put down the following conditions:

--Clear information. Descriptions and examples of the goals, knowledge needed, and the performances expected.

-- Thoughtful practice. Opportunity for learners to engage actively and reflectively whatever is to be learned -- adding numbers, solving word problems, writing essays.

-- Informative feedback. Clear, thorough counsel to learners about their performance, helping them to proceed more effectively.

-- Strong intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Activities that are amply rewarded, either because they are very interesting and engaging in themselves or because they feed into other achievements that concern the learner.

So there it is, Theory One, a commonsense conception of a good teaching practice. Theory One aims simply to establish a baseline. For any performance we want to teach, if we supply clear information about the performance by way of examples and descriptions, offer learners time to practice the performance and think about how they are handling it, provide informative feedback, and work from a platform of strong intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, we are likely to have considerably success with the teaching.

Perkins, David. Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds. New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1992.