Monday, April 13, 2015

Knowledge as collaborative meaning-making

What is contemporary learning like? Is it just memorizing and regurgitating unrelated facts or constructing understanding?

It is crucially important for every educator to think about their own epistemological beliefs about knowledge, because it has such a huge impact in instruction. How exactly does data become information? And is it enough for an educator to transmit information or is it necessary to support students' knowledge creation and meaning-making processes?

The amount of information in the internet was in April 2014 about 4,4 trillion gigabytes, and it doubles every year (according to this LibraryJournal article). With all this information being freely at everyone's fingertips there are far too many details and facts for anyone to memorize.  And if we just aim to memorize the data, how can we connect those details into the main concepts or general idea? (See the previous post about visuals in learning process.)

Data (or a collection of facts) is just a building block of knowledge, and we need to move past both emphasizing the recollection of some data and information and thinking that transmitting it is teaching. We must support collaborative meaning-making in the classroom, because this provides the opportunities for students to learn from each other. Scardamalia & Bereiter (2006) express it very well:  "(in knowledge creating organizations) People are not honored for what is in their minds but for the contributions they make to the organization’s or the community’s knowledge" (p.101). Why should students' experience in classroom context be any different? Aren't schools and universities supposed to be exactly that: knowledge creating organizations??

Teaching as transmitting information is very unproductive, because it doesn't engage students or stimulate their need to learn, or feed their curiosity to understand and know more.  We must stop focusing on  this ineffective practice as the goal of instruction and focus instead in knowledge creation and management of collaborative meaning-making. This requires the acknowledgement of students' existing competencies, acquired either at school or outside of the formal education.

Does it really matter where and how my student learned something, if s/he is competent? I am aware that this will make textbook publishers to go out of business at some point, but I think it is far more important for students to learn how to find the relevant data and information, and make well informed choices about using it to guide their thinking, than regurgitating a chapter from a text book.

Furthermore, in learner-centered learning environment teachers should change the focus from universal delivery of information (i.e. traditional teacher-centered educational model) to learner-centered or personalized learning approach (i.e. learning facilitation) and:

(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed
(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives
(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and
(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.

These  learner-centered principles (APA task group, 1997) are very applicable for collaborative meaning-making and supporting students' knowledge creation.  After all, in order have students to contribute to the discussion, and to bring some external information to the learning situation, they must be empowered to do so and encouraged to think outside of the box.

Also, the learner-centered principles are very applicable for various e-learning environments (McCombs & Vakili, 2005). Technology should be used as means for promoting collaborative meaning-making - not as a tool to make student jump hoops and do busywork in regurgitating content provided by the instructors, or means for spying on students whether they have checked all the boxes and taken all the quizzes.

I know the interactions for learning take more instructors' time than simply checking boxes to verify that students have finished all their activities, but think how different contemporary learning could be:

Imagine what kind of learning occurs in a learning environment (virtual or classroom) where students are deeply interested about the subject matter and curious to learn more, because it is so applicable for their life or profession -- and the instructor is encouraging the discussions and has built room for innovation into the syllabus in order to learn with the students! Imagine the knowledge gained from this interaction!

It seems to me that we still have a loooooong way to go....

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APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs. (1997). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

McCombs, B., & Vakili, D. (2005). A learner-centered framework for e-learning.The Teachers College Record107(8), 1582-1600.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology (pp. 97-115). 

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