The Learning Cycle

Consider this question: where does most of the mass come from in a tree? The soil or the air? If your answer was the soil, you would be in agreement with most people. A study of MIT graduates in the sciences confirmed this answer. Except it is false. The answer is that most of the mass of a tree comes from the carbon dioxide in the air the plant absorbs during photosynthesis. Many people have the false impression about this topic because their lived experience tells them that you put plants in soil, water them, and they get bigger. They must be pulling their mass from the soil. What we “truly” know is what we learned from lived experience. That is the knowledge we “own.” The knowledge we “rent” is the information told to us, but not experienced. Think of all the information you heard and forgot in school. You rented it because it wasn’t taught to you within the context of what I call the learning cycle. It was taught to you in a more linear fashion. The teacher assumes you do not know anything about topic, tells you the correct information about the topic, and then assumes you will come out the other end of the equation with said knowledge. Nice and simple. And ineffective.

Every person who has experience in the world has preconceived ideas about topics based on their lived experience. Nobody is a blank slate. Even something totally foreign to them gets equated to a lived experience in the form of a metaphor. It is the lived experience that is the knowledge that is owned. Those MIT students were told the right answer at one point in their schooling about the mass of plants and carbon, but it did not coincide with the lived experience. After the test, the taught knowledge faded away and the lived experience knowledge came back—like mildew bleeding back through a fresh coat of paint. Teaching in a process that incorporates the learning cycle can help to mitigate this problem and help students turn that rented knowledge into owned knowledge.

The learning cycle begins with the consider phase of a lesson or sequence of lessons. This might involved thinking prompts, engaging stories questioning, demonstrations, etc. This is nothing new in teaching, however, one aspect of the consider phase that is often overlooked is to purposefully engage students in exposing their prior knowledge about a topic. Too often teachers skip this step and simply use the attention grabber to introduce a topic and tell the students what they are going to experience. Without exposing the prior knowledge you have embarked on the linear teaching equation and eliminated the possibility of the necessary feedback loop to complete the learning cycle.

The learning cycle continues with the construct phase of the lesson. This is what you think of as the actual activity, lecture, demonstration, etc. In what way can you provide situations for students to deepen understanding and build meaning? This is done through actively engaging the students such as cooperative learning, authentic learning, project-based learning, minds-on learning, etc. I use the phrase minds-on instead of hands-on. Minds-on can be hands-on, but hands-on is not always minds-on. Minds-on requires the student to ask questions, ponder, solve problems and so on. Hands-on can be simply following chemistry lab instructions but not knowing why. It might be active and engaging because their might be the potential for an explosion of some kind (what more could a teenage chemistry student want?), but doesn’t require any construction of meaning.

The last phase of the learning cycle, and this is the feedback loop that completes the cycle, is the confirm phase. This is the time when the teacher purposefully guides students in wrestling with the cognitive dissonance between what they thought initially about a topic and what they experienced in the construct phase. If they began with correct assumptions, these were confirmed. If they began with incomplete information, more was added. If they began with misconceptions, the act of dealing with this difference is when the student transitions from renting information to owning the information. If you do not facilitate this last portion of the learning cycle, taking them back to a comparison to their initial ideas, the cycle is never completed. If the confirming phase is skipped then often times their experienced knowledge wins out in the brain in the long run. This is what happened with the MIT graduates regarding plant mass.

Let’s put this into an example. Consider the typical cell lab almost everyone who took high school or middle school biology completed. Constructed in the linear fashion, students enter class and the teacher tells them they will learn about the cells that make up all living things. She proceeds to tell them about cells, shows some pictures of cells, demonstrates how to get the sample, make the slide, and operate the microscope. Students draw pictures in their lab notebook. Often these pictures look more like the diagram used to introduce the lab than the actual object in the microscope. I know because I’ve graded many of these labs. At the end, she asks, did you all see the cell and the nucleus, the cell membrane and cell wall? They say yes. If she asked if they could see the mitochondria like the one in the picture, many would say yes to this as well. They can’t by the way, unless using better equipment than in most school science labs. I call this the tell, show, and re-tell model of teaching. We’ve gotten really good at this. I was really good at it for a long time. It is a really good model for short term memorization of the right answer for a test.

Now let’s consider this same exact lab procedure, but now in the learning cycle. Instead of telling the students what they will see, the teacher uses probing questions to access their prior knowledge about what makes up living things and what is inside those things. Then she sends them on their way to experience seeing what those things might be. Exact same lab as the first example. Instead of sending the students into the lab with her answer though, she is sending them in with their pre-conceived answer based on their prior lived experience. Since the students don’t know what they are supposed to see they aren’t going to guess at what they think the teacher wants to see and then draw that in their lab notebook. Instead they will draw what they honestly see. It might be very similar to the expected answer. But it may not be either. It is authentic however. So when do they actually learn the right answer about cells? Now is when the teacher steps in and actually “teaches.”

The confirm phase involves the teacher providing a means for the student to compare what they saw in the microscope to what we already thought they knew about cells. Instead of lecturing up front about the cells, instead she lectures on the back end of the lesson. Instead of taking notes on a blank piece of paper, they are making corrections and additions to their lab report they completed while looking at the cells. In this process they have to compare the accepted science answer about cells with their prior knowledge and their lived experience in the lab. By doing this you are completing the learning cycle and the students are constructing new meaning about the nature of cells based on a new lived experience. This has a better chance to replace the prior knowledge and therefore become the perception of cells they own instead of just renting for the upcoming test. In the end, the activity did not change, but the setup and the closing of the activity were changed and the traditional lecture was changed from a dispensing of information to a discussion of the students’ experiences. This hands-on activity has now been transformed into a minds-on activity as an integral part of the learning cycle.

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