Our Learning Sciences M. Ed. Stream

About this time last year we finalised recruitment for a new specialism in our M. Ed. program. It focuses on the learning sciences, and is called Designing Powerful Learning Environments. The idea of the specialism is to help teachers understand what the research in the learning sciences is saying about how people learn, and to use this to design instruction and learning environments.

The specialism is designed for teachers and other education professionals. We wanted an international feeling to the first cohort, and a group that can bring a wide range of experiences to our thinking about learning.

The first cohort includes local teachers in science, social studies, English, and art; postsecondary instructors in technology and nursing; instructors at test preparation centres in China; a manager for Teach for China; and people with backgrounds in computer science, architecture. Thinking about what research has to offer to teaching, and then making use of this to develop new educational experiences is intellectually challenging and important work, and we chose the right people for it.

This cohort is now 8 months into the process. The students were already familiar with the key findings of the How People Learn report (2000), and we started by considering the 4 features of learning environments proposed in that report (pp. 23-25):

  • Schools and classrooms must be learner centred.

  • To provide a knowledge-centred classroom environment, attention must be given to what is taught, why it is taught, and what competence or mastery looks like.

  • Formative assessments … are essential. They permit the teacher to grasp the students’ preconceptions, understand where the students are in the “developmental corridor” from informal to formal thinking, and design instruction accordingly.

  • Learning is influenced in fundamental ways by the contexts in which it takes place. A community-centred approach requires the development of norms for the classroom and school, as well as connections to the outside world, that support core learning values.

We looked at John Hattie’s synthesis (Visible Learning) on factors that influence learning, and different models and perspectives on learning, such as Ten Steps to Complex Learning (van Merrienboer and Kirschner, 2013), and Teaching as a Design Science (Laurillard, 2012). Then followed the major approaches from the learning sciences, such as reciprocal teaching, problem-based learning (PBL), project-based learning, and knowledge building. To begin to look at some of the major constraints we then  introduced assessment and the the need to be able to scale up the approaches to large numbers of classrooms.

The students have started to explore aspects of what we have discussed in their own classrooms, and have brought their findings back to our classroom. As some are international students who currently don’t have a class, they have collaborated with the local teachers in the cohort in the planning, observed the classes, and contributed to the sharing in our class.

Some students have now started more extensive projects and dissertation studies:

  • Collaborating with a local teacher to explore flipping the classroom in a Hong Kong context. In a flipped classroom, some of the teaching is done online, mostly via, lighthearted videos, and students do the more difficult “homework” in class, where they have access to the teacher and other students. Teaching culture in Hong Kong is dominated by examinations, and Asian beliefs such as the need to “save face” continue to be important.
  • Design and implementation a PBL-based after-school program in English for recent immigrants. The existing course focused on direct teaching and exercises but involved little writing in English. The main idea of the new program is to use problem situations in school life as the context for communicating in English.

So far, the conversations and projects are very interesting. But they are opening up interesting questions. I’ll end by mentioning just three, that I’m sure will be elaborated on in future posts:

  • How do we see the role of tutoring centres? They are sometimes regarded as a threat or even embarrassment to the public education system, but the emphasis on test preparation is a worldwide and growing phenomenon, also known as the Shadow Education System. In China, performance on tests such as the SAT, TOEFL, and IELTS is very important for applications doer overseas study, and these centres play an important role. It is fascinating to think how public education systems might respond.
  • In local schools much time is devoted to test preparation too, and it is a growing trend in the USA since the No Child Left Behind era. This means that teachers have relatively little time for their own learning and innovating in their classrooms.
  • The institutional conditions in local schools also constrain innovation, and prevent the take-up of new approaches that are effective. Computers continue to be mostly in computer labs, mobile devices are turned off during class, and wifi is often unreliable. School policies also can inhibit innovation, e.g., policies that require teachers to give many dictations rather than frequent writing.

Of course these things have been known for a very long time, but it is at least fascinating to be thrown into the problems since so much work in the learning sciences has focused on individual classes. We need much more emphasis on making a difference at the policy and organisational levels.