Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning (and "Unlearning") Every Day

My daughter is a little over a year and a half and she's a spitfire.  Every day she amazes me and my wife with what comes out of her mouth, and what actions she takes.  As an educator and scientist at heart, I'm always amazed at what she learns, and what she doesn't.

Take colors, for instance.  My daughter is at a stage where she loves picking up objects and telling me what color they are.  She readily identifies yellow, orange, blue, red, pink, etc.  However, she refuses to call orange, "orange."  Why?  Not a clue.

Or consider counting.  We count together up to ten, but she never says eight.  In fact, every number beyond seven is "nine."  What allows a person to build conceptual understanding but prevents them from tearing down "blockages?"  I find it all so interesting.

So interesting, in fact, that I ran a quick test with my daughter this week (the armchair scientist's work is never done).  As we were driving home from my daughter's daycare on Thursday, I started counting off by odd numbers, interested to see if my daughter would insert the evens.  After a few practice rounds, she did (of course leaving out eight).  The speed that she picked this up was amazing to me.  What was even more amazing is that over the last three days, anytime we ask her to count, she now only counts in even numbers.  In effect, by trying to teach her a new idea, I somehow made her "unlearn" the other numbers she seemed to know!

The connection to education (whether working with pre-K'ers or high school students) is that we all inherently have concepts and ideas that come to us very easily, and misconceptions that can arise at the drop of a hat.  As educators (and certainly parenting is all about education) it is our job to identify what comes easy (nothing provides challenge for those who "get it" better than encouraging them to assist others) and what just seems to be "blocked."  We also must do our best to not create gaps in understanding by trying to teach new ideas that others might not be ready for or that might confuse cognition.  What do we do to help when those obstacles seem to just pop up?  Well, that seems to depend quite a bit on age.  Based on my experience, I've provided a few thoughts below.

For the really, really, young, repetition and practice can often provide the push to overcome any misconception.  Since conceptual understanding of all things is occurring at a breakneck pace, ideas are constantly being relearned.  It's like continuing to add a new coat of paint.  Eventually, it looks just right.

For elementary level students, unpacking challenging ideas in truly concrete ways is helpful.  Small, discrete, ideas provided with ample time to explore in a variety of learning modalities is key.  So is avoiding creating misconceptions yourself as ideas "set" at this age often have a way of "sticking."  Explaining that plants conduct photosynthesis and animals conduct cellular respiration to a third grader "glues" the idea that plants do not conduct cellular respiration into their scientific consciousness.  This erroneous idea, like others, becomes much tougher to remove as students get older.

For secondary and post-secondary learners, the idea of metacognition is paramount.  Once students can truly think about their thinking, they can begin to explore why certain concepts challenge them, and what they, in fact, can do about it.  The self-motivated learner is what we hope all our students (and even ourselves) will become.

Finally, for "adults" collaborative opportunities keep learning fresh, and help us to see ideas from other perspectives.  Since we often get further set in our ways as we age, nothing works better to loosen these restrictions than engaging in evidence-based discussion with others.

The key, of course, is to always keep learning (and to strive to "unlearn" that which is not "correct").  We see it in the very young, and this trait of "learning everyday" should be something everyone sets on their daily "To Do" list.  While certainly a lofty goal, it is one that can be reached and never exhausted at the same time.

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