By: Peter Skillen
"The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves."
--Marvin L. Minsky (from The Society of Mind, 1986)
I want students to be busy building their own minds.
As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains.
Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s theories of constructivism or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and, as learners, we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree. (And, as educators, we can influence the ‘greater or lesser’!)
What does it really mean to have students take charge of their own learning? We usually think of student agency as an important aspect. However, it is insufficient. Students need to have a solid grasp on the concepts of metacognition, intentionality, expertise and flow. They require epistemic fluency—essentially, knowledge and skills in learning how to learn. We need to know how to nurture and grow this in classrooms.
We’ll briefly attend to one aspect of this in this post: learning for transfer.
Not just the cognitive…
Having said that I want students building their minds does not suggest that I do not care about the rest of the human entity! In fact, I care a great deal about that.
In my view of the world, the head, heart and hands are part of the same whole—and, so, in building their brains, they are at the same time building themselves as well-rounded, empathetic human beings who are productive and sensitive citizens of the world.
Global Competencies and Deep Learning
We are seeing a movement across many nations towards an education for children that focuses on global competencies. These competencies, as the Ontario Ministry of Education says, are
“knowledge, skills, and attributes that help children and youth to reach their full potential—are additional to the important foundational skills of literacy and mathematics, and to the core learning in other subjects.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016)
Global competencies are associated with growth in the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal domains—the whole child.
Part of this involves what has come to be called ‘deep learning’. James Pellegrino describes deep learning as “...the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations - in other words, learning for transfer...” (National Research Council, July 2012)
Interestingly, in the latest report from the Ontario Ministry, Ontario: A Learning Province (March, 2018), it is suggested that assessment will now also focus on transferable skills.
Cognitive Residue: How Do We Help Kids Build Transferable Skills?
Can coding lead to knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are transferable to other situations? Or maybe a better question might be, “How can we help students think about coding in ways that will allow for this transfer?”
If you ever wonder at the end of a day just what your kids learned while working at the computers and you are dissatisfied with your thoughts, consider the following simple model. Gavriel Salomon has posed an analysis of the difference between ‘effects with’ and ‘effects of’ computers.
“‘Effects with’ are the changes that take place while one is engaged in intellectual partnership with peers or with a computer tool, as, for example, is the case with the changed quality of problem solving that takes place when individuals work together in a team. On the other hand, ‘effects of’ are those more lasting changes that take place as a consequence of the intellectual partnership, as when computer-enhanced collaboration teaches students to ask more exact and explicit questions even when not using that system.”
In other words, the ‘effects with’ are the enhanced ability one gets while using technology.
The ‘effects of’ are the lasting changes resulting from technology use—the cognitive residue, one might say—the transferable knowledge or skills. You can do something better after having used the technology. Using the technology changed your schema in some way—altered your brain.
I have frequently shared a couple of examples from my own classrooms. You can see them here in So You Want Kids To Code! Why? Look for the sections on Cognitive Residue and Metaphoria.
How Might YOU Support Students in Building Transfer?
So, how might you go about helping your students experience the ‘effects of’ coding? What classroom activities, or classroom culture, can you develop to help students to build ‘mental models’ that they might use in other aspects of their learning at a future time?
My request of you! Please share your examples as you go forward—and please tag me!
Peter is an independent Ontario educator who has spent over 45 years teaching students and teachers—mainly in the public system. He was a founding teacher at the YMCA Academy—a secondary school serving youth who prefer an alternative approach. He has been involved in technology supported, project-based learning since the late 1970s, has traveled and spoken extensively in many countries, and continues to explore and support knowledge-building environments for students and teachers.
Peter is active in many online education communities, has co-developed courses for TeachOntario, and has been a Global Ambassador with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He co-developed and supported both face-to-face and online learning for the Ontario Teachers’ Federation and has served as an ‘Experienced Voice’, coach & Community Leader with the Powerful Learning Practice. Peter currently serves on the http://ecoo.org/ Board of Directors. He is also co-founder of the Minds On Media model of professional learning which truly reflects how he wishes classrooms to be.
Peter is Curriculum Leader for Code To Learn—a project that recently received CanCode funding. Code To Learn will introduce computational thinking and coding to educators and students Canada-wide. The purpose is to support the integration of coding into project-based learning across the curriculum and grade levels.