Situated university classes and how to overcome them

Posted: March 31, 2011 in OISE Learning Journal Posts

In this post I write about what two of my classmates and I have been discussing in our online course together.

What about doing away with linear timelines, taking a worthwhile topic and grinding it into dust and not taking up a new topic until we are satisfied that it has been throughly pulverized? This is actually what the kids in Bereiter’s article “Putting Learning in its Place”, chapter 8 of Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age They came across the topic of growth completely serendipidously and started out with rather uniformed observations and discussions. Months later, left almost entirely to themselves, they had gotten into deep investigation of the issue of growth and their investigation and their discussions became scientific in nature. They discussed theories, collaborated on their own knowledge building, went to outside experts as well as their parents and other teachers, and by the end of the 3-month period (I am not sure if the 3-month period was imposed or if that is when the topic petered out naturally by itself) they had come to understand growth in about as much detail as anyone at age 11-12 possibly could. And they did the research themselves and developed invaluable skills and habits in how to acquire and process information. They become scientists, researchers, and I imagine that many of them are going to use their newfound satisfaction in learning in their life-long process of education. And they will always remember what they learned about growth!

I had a somewhat similar experience, in Clare’s constructivism class. I remember reading Bereiter’s article “Situated cognition and how to overcome it“. What an article! It took me a while to get my head around that one. I had similar challenges with Pea’s article (Pea is a keynote speaker in the CSCL conference in Hong Kong this July!) and maybe one more, but it’s Bereiter’s that I remember the most because it was difficult, new, very different from anything I had learned before, and brilliant. I spent a lot of time on it, writing in our forum, getting into picky points like Dan and I do here, and had a unique learning experience. I was lucky in that I had a few classmates who were as interested in the article as I was, and we really did a thorough job of analyzing it. I think the discussion carried on past the one week. I still remember the feeling of deep satisfaction that I got from wrestling with a difficult and fascinating topic and not stopping until… the discussion was over. Did we really pulverize it? Possibly, but we didn’t allow what we learned on sit cog and distributed cognition to lead to learning about related topics.

One thing that is absolutely essential in this kind of process of deep learning (and KB!) is TIME. I would not have gotten to the bottom of sit cog or distributed cognition if I hadn’t had the time to read, think, write, post, read more, think more, in a cyclical process leading to true understanding at a deep level. Stian wrote about time and how limited his is and how he goes back to previous threads when he has more time. Dan wrote about how topics seem finished at the end of the week for him, but I think that this is because topics have been set up that way. I teach university classes and I know that only a certain percentage of my class is there to learn and has a strong commitment to it. This is true of grad students too. There is a wide variety of Students A, B, and C in all classes, with their related goals of A) task-completion B) learning and C) knowledge building. The majority of students are probably A or B, but maybe this would change if classes were structured around knowledge building instead of around weekly topics. All of the kids in the Grade 6 class were building knowledge together, there were no A or B students (at least, this is the impression I get).

There is also a certain amount of material, a certain number of topics that have been identified in the syllabus/curriculum and need to be covered. What would happen if they were not introduced on a week-to-week basis but on a “once we have dealt thoroughly with this topic we’ll move on”? Some topics might not be dealt with at all. Is this okay?

Honestly tho, topics with no time restrictions at all, no weekly change of topics would be the best way to learn. Topics that are less interesting would take up less time. For me, tagging was worth a very small discussion while something like sit cog and distributed cognition could/should take weeks. It could branch naturally into related areas and each of these could be investigated to the satisfaction of the students. This would be a true Classroom C, where the control over learning and KB would be left entirely up to the students. Well, maybe not entirely because someone has to get us onto the notion of situated cognition in the first place. But you get my drift. If there were no weekly topics, students could contribute whenever they had time. This is great not just for busy people but for time to accommodate and assimilate all the new knowledge we are building.

So why is it that we still follow linear models of learning instead of far more organic models in university classes? If Grade six students can do it, can’t we? I suspect the answer lies in structure, grades, syllabi, and the obvious observation that not all students would like to learn this way (at least not at first). I guess many students appreciate the predictability of one week after another, one topic neatly dealt with and another promptly introduced, like topics coming by on an assembly line… (sorry, it’s not really that bad, is it?). This assembly line model of learning is more convenient for teachers and for many students as well. But is it the best way to learn? How much knowledge building can take place in this kind of setup? Because of my experiences in Clare’s constructivism class, I’d say yes, it’s possible to build knowledge even in compressed amounts of time. But think of what would happen if knowledge could be built in here like a tree, with a trunk going up and branch after branch growing out, all student-led, all generated by interest…

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