Students in charge of their own learning
“If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur.”
Intentional Learning (IL) is a frame of mind which thrives in a classroom culture focused on students taking charge of their own learning. Many agree that the cultural surround affects learning. “In the Vygotskian approach to instruction, changes in the whole interactional system, not just in the student, are thus considered in the analysis of cognitive change.” 1 John Seely Brown et al suggest that “learning is … a process of enculturation.” What people learn is often “a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.” This implies that the belief structures, the personal interactivity, the nature of the activities and the atmosphere of a learning community are critical determinants of what is learned.
This is not to say that explicit teaching is not an appropriate technique. Rather, it is but one of the components of a culture conducive to the development and support of IL. Many have shown explicit teaching to be necessary. Also, not only is the ambient culture powerful in determining the course of what is learned it may also exercise power over the ability for the learner to use that knowledge in a setting different from that in which it was learned. Explicit teaching has been shown to assist in this difficulty of ‘situated cognition’ (Salomon) by making transfer to other settings overt.
In many classroom situations, it is the teacher who orchestrates the various aspects and components of learning and hence defines the culture as such. Normally, it is teachers who possess knowledge about learning and how different people might learn under various circumstances. It is teachers who are able (and expected!) to state what they think students’ skills and knowledge are. This ability that a teacher possesses is invaluable in designing effective learning situations. The teachers must also design a plan for students to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes relevant to the topic of study. This entails setting goals or student outcomes. The teacher is then able to generate a number of different activities and select those which will best allow the students to achieve the desired expectations.
Another traditional role of the teacher then involves the ongoing evaluation of the students’ ability to demonstrate the expectations. This may take many forms – tests, observations, performance tasks, essays. The teacher could then modify the activities as necessary and appropriate.
It is clear that the teachers role is one of management:
- management of the existing knowledge available to students
- management of new knowledge to be acquired (parsing and sequencing)
- management of resources (print, audio-visual, computer based, etc.)
- management of learning strategies (brainstorming, zooming in and out from ‘big picture’ to details, trial & error, planning, lecture, experimentation, etc.)
- management of student progress towards desired goals or outcomes
Who’s in Control?
Are students in these situations in control of their own learning? They may be learning the knowledge, skills and attitudes defined by the teacher as desired outcomes. Cognitive goals (among others) have been achieved but metacognitive goals leading to cognitive self-efficacy, may not have been addressed. Students have learned (through modelling and example) what comprises the teacher’s role and indeed what constitutes the role of the student. This then, represents the predominant culture with respect to ‘who is in charge of the learning’. Responsibility for the learning process is clearly in the hands of the teacher.
If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur. Any tools and techniques, therefore, that are to be used within an environment designed to promote and support ‘mindfulness’ or IL should be considered within this context of shifting the control of the learning over to the student. What, then, are some of the elements of an appropriate cultural surround to encourage kids to take charge of their own learning?
IL is a frame of mind which can be instigated, enhanced, and supported using a variety of techniques and tools including journal writing, collaboration and procedural facilitations often supported by technology. Intentional Cognition (IC) is only possible when the task does not demand all the mental resources or capacity. The freeing up of this spare mental effort, and its resulting deployment, have been the focus of much recent development of teaching techniques and will be discussed subsequently. One of the objectives is to have students “direct extra ‘mental effort’ back to the task itself, thus “extracting general knowledge from the particular experience or transforming one’s task performance to a different plane”. So we want to provide tools that will enable students to ‘free up’ spare mental effort and then deploy that mental effort intentionally and appropriately. We also recognize that this may occur best in situations where there is a supportive culture which encourages socially shared tasks which are meaningful and authentic. So these tools of journal writing, collaboration and procedural facilitations need to be embedded in such a culture.
Directing Mental Effort
Intentional Learning (IL) is characterized by a student’s ability to be in control of their own ZPD. This is central to being in charge of one’s own learning. We want the student to be working on constructing one’s ‘mental house’ (Scardamalia &Bereiter). When engaged in a task the student should be generating ideas, alternative goals and subgoals, and strategies. There will be many mental representations in one’s mind as one attempts to construct the artifact (essay, science investigation, Lego/Logo machines, websites, multimedia products, etc.). These may be propositional, graphical or dynamic mental models at the least.
When I speak of mindfulness or intentionality I speak of a student’s wilful attention to, and skill in, learning. The student demonstrates an ‘engagement’ in the task. There is a desire to be involved and great effort is expended in such engagement. Bereiter & Scardamalia briefly describe IL “as the voluntary direction of mental effort, or, the wilful “allocation of spare mental capacity”. That is, cognitive capacity that is not already engaged by the ongoing task may be turned back into the task. This is characterized by activities, behaviours and displays of skills many of which may be described as metacognitive. Metacognition is usually considered to consist of both knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition. Knowledge about cognition refers to information that people have about their own cognitive processes and those of others.
Intentional Learning theory differs from metacognitive theory in that there is an explicit recognition of other aspects of self. Intentional Learners are developing, not only well-developed metacognitive skills, but also attitudes (an affective stance), motivations, and social behaviours that are focused on, and conducive to, advancing one’s own knowledge and the knowledge of others.
- (1)Newman, D., Goldman, S. V., Brienne, Jackson, I., & Magzamen, S. (1989). Peer collaboration in computer-mediated science investigations. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 5(2), 151-166.