Reversing the flow: From context to content

May 30, 2011 at 8:18 am Leave a comment

I attended a Pearson sponsored event last week in Mexico City for university faculty. The subject matter range was pretty large, with speakers from Education to Operations Research to Mathematics, and to Computer Science.

I was particularly interested by the talk from Julio Pimienta, a Cuban Education scholar now at UNAM. I heard the talk through simultaneous translation, which was an interesting experience especially when the translation was in contrast with the slides I saw before me. I spent a good bit of time with Google Translator to understand the slides separately from the translation.

He spent a long time on this one slide.

Pimienta asked the audience how they felt about the new national requirements to focus on content standards, and there was a mixed response, which he interpreted as, “Everyone wants students to learn the content, but we’re not convinced that you get there by starting from the content.” He then put up this slide. He said that our traditional educational model is that students learn the content (“contenidos”) which is organized and presented by the teacher (“transformar,” which the translator sometimes translated as “organized” and other times as “presented”), for the students to learn (“aprendizaje”) in such a way that they can use it in new contexts (“contexto”). The problem is that students don’t learn to apply the knowledge in new contexts in this flow.

He says that we now focus on reversing that flow. We provide students with interesting and motivating problem contexts, which encourage them to learn, and they have to organize the content that they learn in order to solve the problems. I’ve heard variations on this story before — it’s like Ann Brown‘s argument, and the arguments for Learning by Design and for constructionism. What’s new for me was seeing this as a “reverse flow,” that we want the same content to be learned, but through a context-driven mechanism.

Brian Dorn’s dissertation suggests that this doesn’t really work, but might. It’s hard to imagine a better context than real professionals who discover that they need computer science knowledge, and try to teach themselves with on-line materials. Unfortunately, he found that they only get part way there, and inefficiently. Brian shows that, by creating case materials appropriately, we can improve the efficiency and get more significant learning. He got his students to reverse the flow.

I’ve always thought about Brian’s work as mostly speaking to the non-traditional learner, the professional learning CS in-the-wild. But now I’m realizing that his work also speaks to how to make problem/project-based learning work. How do we make the content available and organizable by the students? The answer can’t be just lots of recorded lectures and other educational videos — that content is available to Brian’s subjects, too, but it’s not really helping. Here’s an interesting research problem: How do we provide learning resources such that students can find the content that matches their context, and figure out how to organize and apply it? Can we do it in such a way that is useful to a wide range of learners? Wikipedia and MIT Open Courseware aren’t there yet. I do agree with Pimienta that the reverse flow is more likely to lead to deep, transferable learning. I think we’re good at providing contexts. I think we need to work harder at getting to the student-organized content.

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