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04. How Children Learn

        Children and adults have similarities and differences in learning.  They are active learners, not "blank slates" as once thought.  Piaget led the paradigm shift with his developmental steps.  Information processing models later began explaining cognitive development more accurately.  Vygotsky applied the theories to teachers with the zone of proximal development.  
        There have been a few large discoveries regarding children's learning.  First, children having learning predispositions, or "privileged domains", only registering certain information.  Children, like all learners, use strategies and metacognition to learn.  They develop dynamic theories of mind that influence how they situate themselves and learn.  Also, community plays a large role in assisting learning.  
        Developmental psychology added methods to test how babies think: non-nutritive sucking, habituation, and expectation.  Non-nutritive sucking showed babies focusing a movie through a pacifier; habituation shows they lose attention after getting used to something, but regain it when learning something new; visual expectation showed babies counting even before they have numbers.  All these shed light on the early cognition of babies.  Their understandings become generalized over time and should be the basis of formal education.  
        Language is a privledged domain for babies, as they can distinguish early on between linguistic and nonlinguistic stimuli.  After only 2 months, they also show signs of responding more to their "mother tongue."  They actively try to make meaning of the language they hear, for example by paying attention to lip movements.  They also associate context with meanings.  Language must be practiced as an ongoing and active process and not merely passively.  
        In non-privledged domains, developmental psychologists look at memory.  One view is that mental space (amount of short term memory) increases with age.  Another view is that mental space is relatively fixed, but adults develop effective strategy  to use their minds well.  For example, adults typically chunk information into categories to help them remember more.  There seems to be evidence for the later view, as children can remember more in certain areas, and for example with chess.  
        Metacognition and self-regulation are also important in children's learning.  Self-regulation appears quite early, while metacognition, which includes reflection, appears later.  Between the ages of 5 and 10, there is rapid sophistication in the metacognitive and self-regulatory methods children use.  
        Using multiple strategies to memorize, conceptualize, reason, and solve problems grows with age, however there is evidence that even at young ages, children use multiple strategies.  This has been shown with basic arithmetic, for example.  Three things are known from micro-genetic studies (small-scale studies on the development of a concept) about concept development: 1.  discoveries are made in the context of success, not failure; 2. short-lived strategies often precede more enduing approaches; 3.  generalization of approaches occurs slowly.  These have led to teaching innovations such as reciprocal teaching, communities of learners, and Project Rightstart, which recognize the importance of students' knowing and using diverse strategies.  
        Multiple Intelligence theory has impacted education, with a small but growing grassroots movement.  It offers insight into what is being neglected in traditional curricula, as well as various modes of representing key concepts so that students can demonstrate their understandings.  
        Students have their own theories of mind, which are typically entity or incremental theories.  Entity theories state that intelligence is fixed, while incremental theories posit it is malleable.  These are related to children's educational goals, with entity theorists aiming to perform well, attain positive judgements of their competence, and avoid assessments.  Incremental theorists have learning goals, beleive intellignece can be improved by effort and will, and show will and persistence.  Most children's theories lie somewhere on the continuum between the two, although teachers can help children move to a more healthy conceptualization of their learning potential.  
        Children are self- and -other-directed learners.  They often put themselves in intentional learning situations, including ones with no pressure, feedback, or rewards offered.  They also enjoy solving problems and often do so out of satisfaction.  One challenge of school is to build on their motivation to explore, succeed, and understand.  
        Social interactions, such as adult-child relationships that encourage gradual involvement of children, strongly influences children.  Adults create environments where their children can learn, for example holding up a toy that requires three hands to use.  They also model how to deal maturely with situations, with children taking emotional cues from them.  Further, caregivers allow children to connect new situations to more familiar ones.  They attempt to build on what children know by scaffolding as well.  
        Literacy develops within the first 3 years, and a variety of activies prepare children for it.  Science has validated the effectiveness of picture book "reading" that is related to personal experiences (i.e. The Gas We Pass?)  This includes asking questions such as, "What happens next?" to help children understand.    Using the zone of proximal development, parents often continually challenge children to accomplish the next possible goal. Connection-making and scaffolding of this sort also is helpful in mathematical development. 
        There are cultural differences that educators must be attentive to, as some cultures are more likely than others to encourage development of types of knowledge and interaction style than others.  Some cultures, for example, have adults more explicit direct instructions, where in others, children learn more by observing adults (being seen but not heard).  One study showed dramatic differences in question-answer games that children played with their parents, depending on being White or African-American.  Know-answer questions, which were much more prevalent in the White families, were also must more prevalent in the schools.  The African-American homes gave utterances the function of analogy, story-starting, and accusatory - all rarely displayed in the white home.  For example, African-American children were much more liekly to ask "What's that like?" rather than "What's that?"  Teachers unaware of these differences often accused the African-American children of being "dumb."  But, learning the differences and implementing them in the classroom improved question and answer routines.  This is an excellent example of the "two-way path" that is needed for ethnically diverse groups.  
        Development is key to understanding children's thinking.  Young children are active learners with strong dispositions in certain areas.  Understanding of the physical world is a good place to begin formal education, however when this changes (such as with the introduction of rational numbers) there must be caution.  With practice and effort, children can learn in all domains.  This is very affected by their theory of mind and self-regulation.  Children are natural learners and problem solvers, building their understandings off successful attempts.  Adults help them make connections and by structuring their experiences.  Learning and development of symbiotic and work in both directions. 

  • Generate a list of ideas and initial thoughts that come to mind when you think about this particular topic/issue.
A) Children must learn in the zone of proximal development
B) Children are active learners
C) Children have certain predispositions that allow them to learn some things (like language) easily
D) Children make sense of the physical world and conceptualize even before they have linguistic tools
E) Adults scaffold for children
F)  There are cultural differences in the social interactions between adults and children
G)  Multiple intelligences provides insight into educational methods
H)  Children have their own theories of mind that influence the way they learn
I)  With expertise, children learn how to think better
  • Sort your ideas according to how central or tangential they are.  Place central ideas near the center and more tangential ideas toward the outside of the page.
G - H - I - C - B - A - E - D - F

  • Connect your ideas by drawing connecting lines between ideas that have something in common.  Explain and write in a short sentence how the ideas are connected.
B + C) Children's zpd is determined often by ther predispositions
C + I) Learning can be in or out of a priveledged domain, but in either case as children learn more they can apply ideas to help them learn new information more easily
I + H) Part of becoming an expert is refinding one's theory of mind to an incremental strategy
G + H) MI is a theory of mind, not necessarily entity or incremental, but it has influence in that realm

B + A) Although children are active learners, they can only learn what's is in ther zpd
A + E) Scaffolding is the material that allows a child to enter into the zone of proximal developmen
E + D) Adults help children learn by creating environments in which children are actively figuring things out
D + F) The social interactions of adults and children have a large impact on their learning

  • Elaborate on any of the ideas/thoughts you have written so far by adding new ideas that expand, extend, or add to your initial ideas.
The fact that learners must be active is a central point in the way children (and people) learn should be the driving point for all education.  The easiest thing for teachers to do is lecture students then test their understanding by yielding authority.  Given teachers' workload and certain assumptions about education, it is understandable why education takes this shape today.  However, good education must enable students to become active, by giving them activities and assignments where they have to make their own connections, build off their prior knowledge, reflect and regulate their own learning.  This does not mean that students do not need knoweledge - rather they still need quite a bit of it - just the way their acquire it can be done in ways that help them really undestand it.