What we learn when we learn by doing

Mureren med sin murerske

Everyone in the education field is familiar with Dewey’s axiom “learn by doing.” It is well known that experiential learning is not only preferable by students, but also more effective. I recently started taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera that helped me understand better what learn by doing is. While I was going through the weekly readings, I could see that the following three basic questions were being addressed: what is learning by doing? what do we learn when we learn by doing? when learning is not motivated by learning to do something (practical/experiential), what is the motivation behind It? In this post I will try to share some of the answers I found to these questions through the readings and the connections I made to my experience as an EFL teacher using technology to advance my own learning and that of my students.

First let’s try to define what learn by doing is and give some examples. Learn by doing is experiential learning. Students learn by doing when they do things instead of being told about things. It is many times easier said than done. In the language classroom, students learn to speak the target language by speaking it, not by being lectured about it. The same goes for writing, reading, and listening. However, for students to speak, there should be a reason for them to do so. Therefore, teachers usually create scenarios or simulate situations to bring about a need to communicate. The more realistic the situation is, the more effective it seems in generating real communication. Having understood that, we should say that using Web 2.0 tools should follow the same “learn by doing” guidelines. Students learn about blogging by actually having a blog, posting, adding, and replying to comments.

Once we know what learn by doing is, we need to understand what one learns when he learns by doing. When there is experiential learning, what is learned cannot be put into words. If you ask a teacher who integrates technology into his teaching to tell you how to create a blog, for example, he will probably be able to show you step by step the procedures for doing it. However, he might not be able to tell you about it without visualing a given blogging platform and actually testing its features. Therefore, when one learns by doing, he learns micro scripts and scripts that help him assimilate and index new experiences. When a student has to create a blog, he first has to create an account. This one is probably a micro script that he has already assimilated. He probably knows automatically that to create an account he will have to provide his e-mail address, a user name, and so on. So what he will learn by doing will be how to customize his blog, how to insert a video or an image using HTML code or just copying and pasting. Besides that, he will also learn how to create a post and with this he will be familiar with rules for typing and editing text. He will learn that paragraphs have to be indented, that capital letters are required in the beginning of new sentences (the later might sound weird, but this is true for my teenage students). So, the scrips I have listed are extensions that are incorporated to the micro scripts he already possesses. The digital native claim proves to be a myth when it comes to creating content. This holds true especially if we are talking about young learners. So that is what is learned when one learns by doing.

However, it is not always that learning is guided by such an experiential tone. Sometimes learning is driven by reasons other than learning how to perform a specific task. In this case, learning is motivated by the willingness of knowing more. This is generally what guides professional development: a desire to learn about the philosophy behind a given practice, a new way of thinking about a given area of knowledge. It is learning for learning sake. I guess that in the field of language teaching this is the reason why EFL/ESL teachers, that supposedly already know enough about the English language, go conferences conferences as attendees or presenters and take other professional development initiatives such as reading/commenting/posting to blogs, connecting with peers through social networking channels, and taking online courses.

Finally, I would like to say that learning by doing also applies to writing. And this is exactly what I am trying to do with this blog and my posts. I confess that writing is not easy for me and I make a big effort to make my ideas come accross the way I want. Nonetheless, I never give up. I have been reading books about writing, I have just decided to blog with my students (I mean writing a short blog post after ech class reporting what went on). I did that because I read that if you ask your students to blog (which I frequently do), you should blog to. Finally, I am just about to begin a course in writing and hope I will feel more confident as a writer when it ends.

Some Simple Activities that Wire Students’ Brains

thought synthesizer

photo credit: krischall via photopin cc

Teaching is a craft that is learned by doing and constantly reflecting on your practice. Knowing theory and getting constant training do play an important role in the making of a good teacher. However, very often, we seem to forget the connection between theory and practice so immersed we are on doing. Of course this kind of “automatism” that seems to come with experience is in part the result of diligent investment in professional development, but we do not always know where we learned certain things. We use a given activity because it works for our students. However, we are not always cognizant about why it works so well. These were some the thoughts that crossed my mind when after being done with the overwhelming end-of-semester teaching duties, I resumed reading a book by David A. Souza called Mind, Brain, and Education(specifically Chapter 3 – Impact of Neuroscience on Teaching and Learning – by Judy Willis). To me, at least, and I am sure to many of my colleagues, what the author had to say about the role “intake filters” play on learning and how research on neuroscience validates what we teachers have been doing, made of lot of sense. Therefore, I decided to write a post to summarize and share some connections I made in relation to the effectiveness of some activities I use in class and how they correlate with the latest neuroscience discoveries on how our brains work.

Questions for conversation/discussion

One thing I always do when teaching upper intermediate and advanced levels is to use “questions for conversation/discussion.” Sometimes I create the set of questions on my own or use ESL Discussions questions by Sean Banville. For this activity, I usually give pairs of students a set of different questions and ask them to take turns asking and answering them as if they were engaged in conversation. I generally select questions that have to do with the topic of the lesson we are covering and use them as a lead in or a wrap up activity. For real information gap you might want to warn students not to allow their partners to see/read their questions. According to Judy Willis, one of the reasons why activities such as this one are successful is because they help learners make connections and relate new information with memories they already have. In addition to that, discussion questions allow students to predict what is ahead or review what they had seen.

Run dictation

I also like to use run dictation. This is a very dynamic activity and one of my favorites to use with teens or pre-teens levels. Most textbooks generally feature a series of questions for a lead in, before-while-after reading or a listening activity. So, instead of having the whole class sitting quietly and mechanically asking and answering these questions, I type the questions, ask them to close their books and stick a couple of sets of questions to the classroom walls or outside the classroom. Working in pairs they should run to the board and come back dictating questions one by one to a partner who should write them down. Once they are done, they should get together and answer or discuss them. This is a multisensory activity that activates more than one area of the brain. While doing it, students have to move around, read, listen, and speak. Besides that, it is fun and helps them in dealing with the fear of not knowing in a safer way. Once the responsibility of answering the questions becomes a shared task, it becomes a collaborative endeavor and thus a more rewarding learning experience. This multisensory factor, the author tells us, ends up promoting more connections at the brain and for this reason being more successfully recalled.

True or false

This is one activity I like to use and I always observe that learners cheer at feedback stage as if they were celebrating their luck in a game or the like. I confess, such reactions puzzled me sometimes. We many times take true or false exercises for granted and deem such tasks as only a guessing game. However, according to Judy Willis, the very predictive or guessing nature of true or false exercises can be stimulating for students’ brains. If the student is merely guessing ( in case of a predictive true or false exercise), the dopamine reward he or she gets with the risk associated with making a guess is a guarantee of making learning a pleasurable activity. In fact, it is related to the compelling aspects of achievable challenge present in computer games that our students are addicted to. So, as long as true or false activities are designed to guarantee a reasonable number of correct guesses, they can be a plus for students’ interest and a boost to their brains.

Process writing

In intermediate and advanced courses writing is a vital part of a good English course. This is not different in the school I teach. Therefore, students are supposed to write paragraphs and later four or five-paragraph essays. Using an approach in which they write a first draft, hand in for correction, get feedback in form of symbols and comments on content, and later write a second draft (process writing), seems to be the best way of getting learners involved. The role this plays on students’ brain and thus learning is extremely important. The process of revising and giving constant do feedback, the author points out, is a form of ongoing assessment that is powerful in promoting long term memory and developing reasoning and analysis. Besides that, Willis says, we are recognizing learners effort and achievement and providing an opportunity for improvement, and at the same time reducing frustration.

No News

As you could see, there is nothing new. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that many of the things we teachers do find resonance with the latest scientific research. It also reaffirms the necessity of studying and reassures us (as pointed out by the author) that Vigotsky, Piaget, Kashen and others that have guided us in our practice have been pointing at the right direction. I guess, it is above all, a reminder of the validity of investing in professional development as a way of keeping up with or ahead of our own time when necessary. As educators, we should always make an effort to challenge and require our own brains if we are willing to provide food for thought to our students and our colleagues.