A blast from the past

Last week, I was cleaning out some dresser drawers and trying to reorganize stuff to make room for a few shirts I had purchased. While I’m a typically a pretty organized guy, my clothes drawers can get a little messy. With the influx of new clothing items, the older items tend to get lost in the shuffle. They get pushed to the bottom of drawers and forgotten. As I was cleaning out a drawer with T-shirts, I found an older one that I haven’t worn for a year or two. I received the shirt as a Father’s Day gift and despite wearing it regularly for a while, it had disappeared into the nether regions of my dresser drawer. Although it had fallen victim to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind,” the shirt still fits and I’ve started wearing it again. Seeing the shirt’s magical resurrection in my wardrobe, my family has jokingly called the shirt a “blast from the past.”

I had another “blast from the past” this weekend as I prepared to serve on a panel assessing candidacy exams for several doctoral students. Each student was assigned different research articles to critique. After submitting written critiques, the students also had to orally defend their positions before a panel of professors. To prepare, I read each of the students’ assigned articles and took notes on methodological and theoretical aspects that could potentially be discussed. Buried in a study on interactive whiteboards, I was reacquainted with the work of John Bransford, Ann Brown and Randall Cocking and their seminal work How People Learn (2000). Developed with support from the National Research Council, How People Learn offered a powerful evidence-based examination on the different factors and strategies that influenced student learning. While it was first published almost twenty years ago, revisiting it now, it is still relevant and critical to our work as educators.  Some of the major take aways include:

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. (p. 15)
  2. To develop competence in an area, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. (p. 16)
  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. (p. 18)
  4. Knowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context. (p. 237)
  5. Formative assessments—ongoing assessments designed to make students’ thinking visible to both teachers and students—are essential. In the assessment-centered classroom environment, formative assessments help both teachers and students monitor progress. (p. 24)

While I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years reading new examinations of these concepts, returning to this work is a little like finding that T-shirt at the bottom of the dresser drawer. While Bransford, Brown and Cocking’s work may be a “blast from the past,” their ideas still “fit” and deserve a resurrection.



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