Sunday, March 4, 2012

Human Learning: The End Product of Meaning-Making

"Why so many competing theories of learning?" This question started off the webinar tonight with Dr. Brian Cambourne of University of Wollongong in NSW, Australia.

As diverse people living around the globe, we have very different "ways of knowing, thinking about, and understanding the issues associated with learning and learning to read" because we have such varied world views. Dr. Cambourne says that we can look at theories of learning through two lenses: psychological (knowledge comes from outside and is stored in the learner) and biological ("learning is a special kind of knowing made possible by constructing meaning-making using abstract symbol systems"). He argues for the biological lens, saying that young children learn through experience and meaning-making. Language is just one of the systems we use to make meaning of the world, and language learning certainly fits into Cambourne's Conditions for Learning:
  • Immersion - We are immersed in language from the time we are born. We are able to see and hear language being used from the very beginning of our lives.
  • Demonstration - Because we are immersed in language, we see countless demonstrations of language use, and we begin to understand what rules are followed in various settings.
  • Expectation - We hold expectations for children's language usage - namely, that they will use language successfully. When we are young, we do not see language as an option; it is simply the communication we dive into when we begin to interact with others.
  • Responsibility - Based on these expectations, we assume the responsibility to use language in the appropriate ways we see modeled in our society.
  • Use - Learning occurs through experience; children need time and opportunity to practice language.
  • Approximation - Mistakes are necessary for learning to occur. Providing a risk-free environment for children to approximate, or "have a go," is essential for them to feel comfortable using language and practicing despite mistakes.
  • Response - The way we respond to a child's approximations can have a huge affect on their desire to experiment with language. If we respond positively to children's approximations, as well as model conventional language, children will eventually drop their approximations and use what we consider to be proper language.
Through these always-connected conditions, Cambourne argues, humans know how to learn language. It is part of our biology, and every person is capable of learning language, although we learn at different rates. As teachers and families, it is important to remember this. When a child is struggling to use language conventionally, it should not be an immediate cause for alarm. By pulling students out of a classroom for remedial work, we are interrupting the natural process of language development. Instead of taking this approach, we need to give students times to develop and make sure that we are constantly providing meaningful, real-world language experiences for each individual child.

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