The start of each semester brings the challenge of evaluating a new group of students to determine what they already know, what challenges they may have, and what they want from the course. The students come to the course with a range of reading, writing, and technology skills. While I have a plan in place, it needs to be flexible to adjust for each group of students. As the authors of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School note, “teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them (p. 19).” This is especially important when dealing with adult learners who bring such a wide range of skills, education, and experience to the classroom. The process of learning can be fraught with deeply held beliefs about how things are and the students’ own abilities or shortcomings. The challenge lies in finding ways to connect with each student and draw upon their existing knowledge to make meaningful connections to the new material.
Until the latter half of the twentieth century, education was predominately limited to essential skills like reading, writing, and math (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 4). However, education has evolved to focus more on problem solving and applying the basic skills to other situations. Students no longer just add numbers. Instead, students take those basic skills and apply them to budgeting and price comparisons. With this change, learning becomes a more active process where the students do not just passively listen to lectures. Students now take an active role in the learning process.
Technology often assists instructors in enriching the student experience. Many publishers offer interactive tools for instructors to use in their classrooms that allow students to interpret the information in new ways and offer simulations students may not otherwise have access to. These new tools can lead to great success with students, as noted by the authors of How People Learn. They cite a study where the use of an interactive computer physics tool with sixth graders leads them to perform better than eleventh and twelfth graders taught through traditional methods (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 21). The use of technology in the classroom shows potential to help make connections and assist students in transferring knowledge to new situations successfully while also offering the benefit of a more active learning experience.
Moreover, a teacher must consider the difference in the students gaining “useable knowledge” versus just memorizing a set of facts to pass an exam (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 9). Too often students and teachers focus more on the ability to pass an exam rather gaining the knowledge at a level that demonstrates understanding. Instead, a better goal might be to focus on the why of learning. For students to truly understand the material, they need to connect with what application the material has in their everyday lives. For example, Algebra seems like an overwhelming and daunting task when using abstract concepts and letters. However, when you frame the same material in more practical form like budgeting to see what one may afford, a student is more likely to see the value of that material and work to learn it.
Perhaps the most significant lesson from the reading, especially when considering the use of technology in the classroom, stems from the need to account for cultural differences, whether from race, class, or gender. The authors’ cite a number of instances where cultural differences between African-Americans and Caucasians can impact the perception of the learner and how the learner approaches information (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 73). While technology dominates all aspects of modern life, there are clear differences in the level of access to and experience with technology that can be tied to the environments in which students grow up. In my experience, the ability to use and successfully understand technology is directly tied to a student’s economic standing. Poorer students tend to struggle more than wealthier students due less access to technology. Teachers who do not realize these differences may run into the same issue the authors mentioned relating to race, namely perceiving students’ abilities as lesser because of this deficit. The lack of access to or inability to understand the use of technology could also pose the problem of preventing students from successfully completing assignments. This can, in turn, increase the students’ frustration with the experience and subsequently reduce their enthusiasm and motivation, essential parts of effective learning. A balance between the benefits of this technology and the hurdles faced by using technology must be found to employ it effectively in the learning process.
Bransford, J., Brown, A.L. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (pp. 3-27). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368