Changing the way we learn

Many promising ideas have been tried for improving education that address mental health issues that are related to schooling, only to be aborted by an administrative organization and a frame of mind resistant to change. This has prompted a call for systemic change, a process that will take time to install given the complexities of such a move. In the meantime, there are changes that can be made, providing the forces of convention can be enticed to allow them to survive.

The learning process about to be described, applied in public schools, requires blocks of uninterrupted time to enable sustained inquiry. Departmentalized instruction prevents in-depth learning when students, after a short period of instruction, rush off to the next class in another subject.

Teachers would need to adopt a role for facilitation of in-depth learning over teaching as many bits and pieces of content as time allows. Compatible assessment and evaluation strategies would be required. Given the will, these changes could be accommodated even in conventional settings.

A freshman male student at a community college approached me in obvious distress at the conclusion of a class, regarding personal health. He said he had a failing grade in chemistry, a required course in his major, and he felt this was a life-or-death situation.

His story prompted a memory relevant to the problem, having being introduced in the 1960s to the concept of “advanced organizers,” a part of David Ausubel’s “Meaningful Learning Theory.” Ausubel advocated a process to be used by teachers to begin instruction in new content areas. Instead of viewing this process as a teaching technique, I viewed it as a process to be engaged by learners.

I also remembered what I had learned about general systems theory, especially what had been described in 1993 by its leading authority, Bela Banathy. The parts of that relevant theory are called systems design, defined as a process of learning, and systems analysis, as a strategy for assessment and evaluation of the products of systems design.

I began my conversation with this student by describing how he could affect a change from a disastrous failure to success, by first attempting to put himself in the shoes of the author of the text used in the class. Each chapter in the text represented the parts of a system of thoughts about the discipline of chemistry, its contents and methodologies.

We assumed the author’s view of chemistry was a set of interrelated parts of a system, but limitations of language prevents communicating the whole picture, it requires breaking down the whole into its relevant parts, the chapters of the text. Each chapter details descriptions of the parts arranged by the author in a deliberate order that conveys priorities. The student is left to develop an understanding of each part, and if possible, construct an integration of the parts to form a unified whole.

I suggested this student create an “advanced organizer” where he would develop and display in a computerized record a graphic illustration or model of the system, featuring each part and their relationships as understood at that time, taken from the table of contents of the text.

It was agreed the first illustration would be crude, but the model would be refined as written information is processed in combination with laboratory experiences and further study. (A computerized record or diary documenting the experiences in the language of the student was suggested to enable accessibility for revisions and improvements as investigation proceeded.) Each investigation was to be documented as each part is refined. As inquiry proceeds, other parts would be elaborated as parts in the system and details are added to the record.

In terms of Bloom’s “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Cognitive Domain,” this process begins at the level of knowledge of specific information or facts, however elementary they may be. This information, to be meaningful, must be first translated into familiar language, interpreted and extrapolated, a process referred to as comprehension. This leads to applications whereby new information and language are connected to old in a meaningful way.

By defining the parts and the possible interrelationships, a process of analysis begins. Analysis leads to synthesis or putting together the parts of a system in a unique model. Finally, creative and critical evaluation of the system is achieved.

Systems analysis/evaluation involves a search of the parts of this new system, expressed in a model, to determine accuracy and the validity of the relationships between the parts. This analysis leads to identification of insights not yet developed, suggesting next steps for continuous meaningful learning.

It was agreed a diary or computerized record is indispensable for keeping track of experiences while the process of refinement of parts proceeds to an integrated and validated version of the system.

Engaging the process of establishing an “advanced organizer” helped define the necessary parts and relationships of the system to be mastered, in this case a beginning understanding of the discipline of chemistry. By constructing and illustrating a set of parts that form a unified system, this student went from a failing grade to an indisputable level of competence and an outstanding evaluation.

He gained a level of self-confidence never to be forgotten and a methodology for lifelong learning that can apply across all areas of general education. For him, suicide was no longer considered an option.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.