What makes content a learning resource? – 1

I have decided to write a series of posts on the adaptation of online content as learning resources. This is in keeping with K-12 educator in making less use of traditional textbooks and greater use of online content (web pages, video). While I have written textbooks, I have always had some nontraditional views when it comes to learning content and I think my experience with applied educational psychology and instructional design may offer educators some insights. I have written a book on this topic, but I find that each time I write about a topic I develop new ideas so the effort to author a series of blog posts.

This post serves as an introduction to the topic of the difference between online content and online learning resources. It occurs to me that maybe content is not exactly the right word.  Perhaps ‘experience” would be better. Experience is more general and would include activities ranging from what we read and write to what we do with physical materials. Hence approaches such as “making”, problem-based learning and project-based learning are often seen as alternatives to reading, listening and watching. Still, there is a core idea across all learning tasks that something (ideas, concepts, skills) are to be learned and the activities of making, solving problems, or completing projects will result in mastery and retention of certain knowledge and skills. To me, the things to be learned are the content and the other activities are added as a way to create a learning resource.

Perhaps you are not used to thinking like this. I find it useful to differentiate the content/skills to be learned from the activities that are applied to increase the sucess of learning. Such activities can be applied by the learners and eventually learners must get to the point that they are in control and can make decisions regarding what activities should be applied for themselves. In K-12 settings, this independence may be the eventual goal, but educators typically make decisions regarding the activities that are added to content exposure in order to improve understanding, mastery and retention

My theoretical background comes from cognitive psychology which I think is very helpful in understanding what learning is and how ti happens. Any educator needs some core ideas about how learning happens. Part of what I think academics such as me must be able to do is to translate some of the core ideas of cognitive psychology into a form that makes sense to educators. This is what I will try to do here. To keep these posts to a reasonable length, I intend to have a specific focus for each post. The focus here is to list specific cognitive tasks the LEARNER (capitals for emphasis) must accomplish to learn.

Activate existing knowledge. We are certainly capable of pure memorizations, but learning for understanding and application requires that we integrate new ideas into our existing mental structures. I will leave mental structures vague for the moment, but simply put we organize ideas and skills into models or systems. Information/skills are not stored randomly. Perhaps such a structure might be thought of as a “personal theory” of something. A personal theory is how we think something works, a strategy for approaching a certain kind of issue, etc. Knowledge activation simply means we must activate what we already know (our personal theories) when we are learning something new in order to build a better version of these existing theories. Simply put – no activation, no connection, no improvement.

Think. I am a big fan of thinking. Most educators are the same. Content exposure is not enough. As simple as it may sound the learner must think about new ideas. Thinking can take many forms (summarization, imagining applications, etc.), but an important difference between exposure (content, experience) and learning experience is the addition of thinking. Many of the activities educators attempt to add to exposure might be thought of as different ways of encouraging specific forms of thinking.

Evaluate and regulate. I don’t mean testing. I mean any cognitive process frequently fails. This is a good thing. It is good thinking is not overly careful. Being perfect about the thinking leading to learning would be far too time consuming. Think of effective thinking as quick hypotheses with quick evaluation. Fail quick, BUT be able to identify the success of your efforts. Effective readers and effective learners (studiers?) do this. This is one very important distinction between those who struggle and those who do not – the capacity to immediately recognize failure so that minor problems do not become major problems and major problems become discouraging. Quite frankly – those who struggle simply do not know what they do not know. Most of us know in a moment that the last sentence did not make sense (I hope it did, but maybe it did not). If the lack of understanding was obvious to us, we could do something immediately. Even simple rereading drastically increases understanding, but you need to only reread when necessary or things simple become overwhelming and inefficient. Activities can be added to content/experiences to improve evaluation and regulation when learners are unable to execute such cognitive actions themselves.

Three big requirements. Easy enough to state and I hope understand. If you were a successful student and are a successful life-long learner, you do these things with little mental effort, but I hope with some thinking you can recognize them in yourself. The challenge for any educator is to develop these skills in naive and struggling learners.