Monday, October 27, 2008

Learning Tactics and Their Support

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you allLearning Tactics and Their Support
This post is part of October’s edition of the Working / Learning blog carnival. This month’s host is Leean of Xyleme Learning Blog.

The strategies, pedagogy and scaffolding
, are familiar in teaching and learning today. Their applications are just as relevant in the classroom as in the workplace.

Often, the principles behind such useful strategies
are glossed over in favour of a collaborative approach to learning. Learners share areas of skills and knowledge that they may be deficient in. When these situations occur, some learners may be left to pull themselves up by their own bootlaces when it comes to learning what's needed.

The worth of these
strategies is sometimes forgotten about or misunderstood. As well, the terms 'pedagogy' and 'scaffolding' tend to be interchanged inappropriately when discussing teaching and learning.

Why a Jigsaw Puzzle?

I use the idea of building parts of a jigsaw puzzle when thinking about pedagogy and scaffolding. It is an analogy for learning. Though it's not the only analogy I use for this, it fits well with the context discussed here. The jigsaw puzzle analogy reflects much of Jean Piaget's theory - that learning occurs within a framework of past experiences and events.

Piaget recognised the essential importance of play in learning situations. The processes of accommodation and assimilation are assisted when the learner is having fun.

Strategies for building:

Wikipedia defines pedagogy as "the art or science of being a teacher". Using the jigsaw puzzle analogy, pedagogy can be thought of as a way of presenting
to a beginner the likely pieces for placement. It connotes an approach to learning that's guided by a teacher.

There are some defined rules to do with how the steps should be chosen. They are selected carefully by a skilled teacher according to parameters, other than just what step comes next in a learning sequence. That's why teaching is an art, rather than a prescriptive routine.

Computer based instruction, and the theory that goes with it, is an attempt to design a machine that can select learning steps for the learner. It mimics pedagogy by using a behaviourist approach to instruction. A pithy summary for the tactics used is, 'when this behaviour occurs, present this learning step'.

There is some merit in this approach, as
Scott McLeod outlined in his post that asked, "can a computer lecture better than a human?" Computer instruction routines are geared to what fits most learners.
But they may fall short when it comes to what fits best.

A computer cannot see the puzzle pieces
the way the learner sees them.
To provide effective learning material, the instructor has to see things through the eyes of the learner. The art of the teacher is knowing what pieces to select, and in which order, that best fit the needs of the learner - the pedagogy.

Foundation and support:

Wikipedia defines scaffolding as, "the provision of sufficient supports to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced". These include the steps that help the learner move from one level of understanding to the next. They're like relevant pieces of a jigsaw puzzle placed appropriately

They lead or point to the skill or idea that is to be learnt. The correct placement of them helps the learner see the relevance of the next puzzle piece to be laid - the next learning step.
Teacher assistance and encouragement, while this is done, provides the necessary support for preparatory learning - the scaffolding.

Scaffolding can also permit the learner to envisage what has to be learnt next. Provisions that do this inspire learning. What could be more impelling for the learner than a strategy that anticipates what's next to be learnt?

Scaffolding can take many forms. It may amount to learning a series of skills and knowledge that are seemingly unrelated, having no relevant sequence. An example of this is the set of skills and knowledge the elearning apprentice should learn before stepping into the field of elearning.

Often the scaffolding is a progressive and sequential series of related knowledge and skills. Such a series is found in what's required by a junior science student about to learn how to balance a chemical equation:
  • understanding of the particle theory of matter
  • awareness that the smallest discrete particle of matter is the atom
  • knowledge that elements are made up of atoms that are all the same
  • knowledge that chemical symbols can describe atoms of elements
  • appreciation of the way in which most atoms join with each other
  • knowledge of numeracy used in writing correct chemical formulae
  • awareness that atom combinations follow predictable patterns
  • knowledge of numeracy used in writing chemical equations
  • appreciation of the conservation principle of matter
The sequence of the steps presented to the learner is important. It is an integral part of the strategy. A learner who has not been introduced to these concepts, mastered each skill and gained the relevant knowledge, would have considerable difficulty with the ultimate step in learning to balance a chemical equation.

In a constructivist situation, scaffolding cannot always be planned. If it occurs, it may well be just by chance.
The skill of a teacher is in being able to establish if the learner already has the necessary learning to be within easy reach of the next learning objective. Knowledge of what additional scaffolding, if any, may be required by the learner, before progressing to the next level, is as important.

As the learner builds on learning, however, it may not turn out to be exactly the same as the vision of the learning held in the mind of the teacher.


Wikipedia explains metacognition and quotes J H Flavell, referring to the learner becoming familiar with the "learning-relevant properties of information or data". The ability to recognise the property of what is to be learnt is a higher thinking skill. Its use can help the learner select effective learning strategies. A learner who possesses some measure of this skill may still be disadvantaged compared to another who has the benefit of a teacher.

Through specific training and practice, a learner can still become better equipped to learn. With insight, such a learner may be able to recognise learning perspectives more readily than the teacher. The learner who practices such skills effectively becomes the teacher; learning becomes autonomous.

Same old story:

People who to try to learn from textbooks, or through online course material, find they have to bring energy to the learning process. In the absence of a teacher, learners must seek and recognise scaffolding for themselves. Unfortunately, most learners cannot easily anticipate the need for this - never mind identify it.

Without perseverance, commitment and a will to learn how to learn, most people
who study on their own run out of energy. Clive Shepherd confirms this in an all too common tale of woe from a workplace trainer. His recent post, Same old story, reports that the success of unsupported, self-study in workplace elearning programmes is often disappointing.

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Ka kite anō - Catch ya later


Anonymous said...

Ken, this is quite the comprehensive post. You touch on a couple of things that trouble me, like the notion that in certain collaborative settings, people can get left behind -- or can end up manufacturing their own understandings that end up needing to be revised.

That kind of revision isn't always bad, but sometimes, it's pretty counterproductive.

I hopped over to Clive's post and noted this comment: "When e-learning goes wrong, you can be sure that the only reason it was introduced was to save money."

I often talk about Gresham's Law in terms of corporate learning: bad training drives out good.

Back in the long-forgotten days of mainframe CBT, corporations put endless amounts of mind-numbing blather online because they could. My component at GE had a 22 hour course on JCL (IBM mainframe job control language). Imagine 22 hours of "click next to continue," interspersed with multiple-choice questions.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Dave!

Thanks for dropping by. If I catch your drift, I too have been troubled by the people who get left behind in some environments that we hear so much about being the greatest since sliced. And the interpretations that some people accept as the real dinkum about topics they are just beginning to learn scares me too. I have to say that I come across these most days.

You mention about Clive's, "when e-learning goes wrong . . .".

I have watched several projects start off with the idea that elearning is the way to save costs. I also believe that, done the 'right way' - and I mean effectively supporting the 'elearning apprentices' - it has the potential to be far less costly than the millions spent on quick-and-nasty hack jobs that started with the idea that it could all be done on a shoe-string.

As for 'click next to continue', I thought that sort of 'programming' went out with basic programming in TRS80s, otherwise known as Trash80s.

An elearning resource has to have scope for it to be worth making in the first place. Here's just one idea I had almost a decade ago now. It has greater potential as a learning tool than it's tutorial suggests. And it has had a lot of student use since I built it, and there are more like that.

Ka kite