repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 16, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon
If anything can be said with certainty about the future of education in a roller-coaster world, it is that we must educate students to deal with uncertainty.
But what does that mean in practice? It means that we must design learning experiences to meet our highest learning goals—goals like the Essential Learning Outcomes listed by the Association of American College and Universities. These are not just practical and intellectual skills (such as critical and creative thinking, inquiry, and analysis) but also elusive and important goals that revolve around personal and social responsibility, ethical reasoning, lifelong learning, and integrative habits of mind. Most institutions of higher learning aspire to these goals but have little evidence of the best ways to reach them.
The research supporting the value of such approaches is overwhelming. The past 40 years have seen major advances in the fields of neuroscience, research in cognitive and social psychology, the dynamics of memory and human development, and the environments in which learning best takes place. In 1999 the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences published the influential How People Learn, synthesizing these findings and highlighting research data that stand behind teaching approaches that are learner-centered, assessment-guided, and socially situated. Classroom-based research continues to confirm and build on these principles, such as studies done by Carl Wieman, whose work since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001 has focused intensively on introductory physics education.
The work of the Visible Knowledge Project, in the current issue of Academic Commons, is one modest example of a classroom-based effort undertaken by faculty members who want to build on these same principles. Faculty experiments took many forms, from exploring how even something as familiar as online discussion tools could foster dialogue at the heart of essential learning, or examining under what classroom conditions one is more likely to create intellectual communities that mirror and cultivate disciplinary thinking. It included working with digital video and narratives, trying to understand how multimedia creation cultivates thoughtful linkages between personal narrative and cultural history, or studying how documentary video production can engage students in social change.
These efforts are not about eliminating structure in education, or taking an “anything goes” stance. Quite the contrary. We’re encouraging new structures. But we are trying to ensure they are carefully designed and based on the best new evidence of how people learn and what works in higher education.
Our experiences suggest in practice what broader research suggests in theory: If we want to cultivate adaptive and flexible thinkers, then we have to structure experiences for students that put them in positions to engage in intellectual discovery and exercise what Lee S. Shulman called “judgments under uncertainty.” This must be done repeatedly, from the earliest opportunities.
There’s nothing simple or determinative about how new media technologies enable these kinds of learning experiences, but their inherent openness, complexity, and ubiquity should make them an inescapable part of our designs for essential learning.
In our next post we’ll look at how electronic portfolios are framing these possibilities beyond courses and moving to the whole learning experience.