Learning as judged by experts

I have been reading the new Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. In his introduction the editor, Keith Sawyer, mentions untested ideas about learning. One of the ones that I found most critical is the idea that the sequence and content of ideas children should learn is decided by (content) experts, not by studying how children actually learn. What this means is that high school Physics, for example, is taught based on how experts in the field of Physics see the organization of Physics as a discipline. This in no way represents any consideration of how these concepts are best learned. In fact it does not even represent how human beings, over the course of the development of Physics, have developed these ideas. So, for example, would it makes sense to start teaching kids Physics by starting with the ideas the Greeks had about it and then showing them how those ideas were overturned? Maybe or maybe not. The point is we are not basing our choices on how students learn best, but on how experts view their field. Who then should be making decisions about how Physics should be taught? Well (no surprise here), people like me. Those of us who instead of studying Physics study how people learn Physics and thus how to best teach it.

This highlights one of the most difficult things about expertise in education – it is widely considered to be part of everyones everyday experience, and thus true “expertise” in teaching and learning is suspect. Physics professors assume they know something about education because they are assigned to teach a section of introductory Physics. How do they usually choose to teach? The way they were taught. If you did this in Physics — do things just like your teacher had done them, without ever testing it empirically — we would still believe what Aristotle did about the world (or the cavemen). It simply does not makes sense as a way to improve our understandings of the world.

The counterintuitive notion for me is that the discipline (e.g. Physics) has taken decades if not centuries to develop, and it has changed over time as naïve or intuitive notions about the world have been emirically tested. Most students, however, have many of the same naive notions about the world, but we assume giving them the current structure of the field will clear all that up for them. We need to understand how people learn and use that understanding to help them move from naive conceptions to deep conceptual understanding of the ideas in a discipline. This is not the way that we think about schooling.

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~ by sbmcdon on November 30, 2006.

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