We don’t know what we don’t know

Rain lifting of a field in Vermont

We don’t know what we don’t know. Like when the sun will come out after the rain.

A synopsis of chapter 3 of How People Learn

This week I decided to start working my way back through How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School from the National Research Council. It’s a text that’s been consistently used in my education classes and a staple I reach for whenever I’m starting to wonder whether a learning design that I’m working on actually makes sense.

I find transfer to be one of the most fascinating (and impactful) concepts to consider, so I decided to jump right into Chapter 3: Learning and Transfer. A few of my highlighted quotes include:

“All new learning involves transfer based on previous learning, and this fact has important implications for the design and instruction that helps student learn.” (p. 53)

“Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts…” (p. 55)

“…learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity of information integration requires time.” (p. 58)

The authors also discussed how motivation impacts learning and highlighted three main motivational impacts:

  • “Challenges…must be at the proper level of difficulty in order to be and to remain motivating…”
  • “Social opportunities also affect motivation.” (like participating in a wiki)
  • Being able to see the usefulness of a piece to others (p. 61)

Some helpful methods for encouraging transfer include:

  • graduated prompting (p. 66)
  • reciprocal teaching (p. 67)
  • procedural facilitation (p. 67)
  • building on pre-existing knowledge (p. 69)

This really feels more like a fast drive by of all the interesting information that’s included in this chapter. I’m hoping it’s enough to make you curious to read more. 😉

But if not, I’ll leave you with my biggest takeaway: we don’t know what they don’t know. So if a teacher dives into a lesson with a preconceived notion of what pre-existing knowledge all students have to build upon, they may be building their lesson on a foundation that includes individual misunderstanding and misconceptions that can severely impact the way that students are able to process the new information being shared. The authors point out that prior knowledge can be impacted by individual experiences, developmental stages, and cultural practices (p. 71 – 72). Given the diversity of cultures and individual experiences students bring to the classroom, it stands to reason that determining levels of pre-existing knowledge through metacognitive activities would be a practice that all learners would benefit from.

National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.