Hi Judy, thanks for explaining your thinking so clearly.
David Ng

Thanks, David-

First of all, I’m not a huge fan of Sugata Mitra’s approach to learning because what you say about learners interacting with the environment with all of their senses is a huge, and essential, part of learning. But I do appreciate the added evidence that children can, and do, learn without being taught.

After 20 years in the classroom (chemistry and physics), I pursued my doctorate in a combination of neurophysiology and education (and never the twain shall meet in those days!) The reading and study I did on the brain has convinced me that there is no “standard” theory that will ever explain how “people” learn/process information/etc. Each person’s brain is its own “black box” and in working with students with various learning problems, I never cease to be amazed at their thinking processes. What turned out to be the most effective was to ask them to step through their process so I could better understand it. I also found that, despite being a relatively creative thinker, there is no way I would have thought of many of the strategies they used — successfully. For example, after unsuccessfully working through all of the tried and true strategies for learning the correct spelling of a list of words, I asked the young man how he would learn the spelling if he could do it any way he wanted. He quickly responded, “I’d turn them into cheers!” So I asked him to do it and he mastered the list with no problem. Of course, he recognized the need to perform the cheers in his head while taking the test. But the simple truth was that he knew all along how to learn — he just hadn’t been asked and/or given “permission” to do it!

Brain research from the 80s and 90s showed that the proliferation of dendrites and connections in brains with access to “enriched environments” significantly exceeded those in environments with little sensory stimulation. Giving students more choice in a typical classroom is unlikely to accomplish much of anything. One piece of the “black box” puzzle is the establishment and curation of enriched environments in which students can explore big ideas in whatever context, sensory mode, sequence, and manner they choose. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, suggests turning schools into huge library-like facilities with a wide range of resources in many areas of interest — from math to science to art to dance to history, etc. etc. And the “teachers” would take on the role of librarians who might suggest resources for a particular learning experience. Collaborative activities are also essential.

I agree that more research should be done to qualitatively describe the “other factors” you mention, but given the variability of the human mind, I’m afraid such knowledge would lead to yet another attempt to “simplify” the process so it will work for everyone…NOT! I’ve also been strongly influenced by Todd Rose’s book The End of Average and his description of the “jagged profile” of each individual.

Because of your curiosity about your own “black box,” you have clearly made great strides in understanding it. Reflecting on their own learning is a huge part of the process in effective learner-centered schools. By reflecting on their choices and the results of those choices, learners continually refine their understand of their own learning — their own “black box.” So this is another piece that must be built in to the process. You may find it disappointing, but at the recent Learning and the Brain Conference, there were few straightforward cause-and-effect results in terms of how the brain learns. Even though researchers are now watching the brains of learners in action, using fMRI and other tools, there is still too much variation to conclude that A will produce B. However, there was one unmistakable conclusion that ran through the sessions. The greater the amount of self-direction and active involvement in the learning process, the greater the students’ motivation, engagement, understanding, retention, and ability to transfer learning from one context to another.

I know…you still want the “nittia-grittia” about how, specifically, to facilitate that. It has to begin with the recognition of each learner as an individual and the respect for that learner’s needs, abilities, processes, and interests. Beyong that…and while it sounds impossible to accomplish…it is a “mind dance” between the adult and younger learner with the goal of growth. While we might want much more, I applaud every teacher/educator who is working toward that goal in whatever way they can.

Fun conversation! Thanks!

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