Exploring Principles of Learning and Teaching

Exploring Principles of Learning and Teaching

Educational Research High School Middle School The Study Academy Report

At The Study Academy, we’re often acquainting ourselves with recent research on effective teaching strategies and structures of learning. In a recent search, we encountered an article on the website of the American Psychological Association entitled, “Top Twenty Principles From Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning” (which you can access directly here). After reading through the enclosed principles, I recognized that many of them were already underlying the framework of instruction that I’ve both witnessed and undertaken at The Study Academy. Since that’s the case, and since readers can have a glance at the principles themselves, what I’ve written below is not a summary of all 20 of the key principles outlined in the article, but instead, my own thoughts and relationship to 4 of those principles, both as an instructor and a learner.

What I quickly realized while writing was that I was gravitating toward principles that had a lot to do with personal responsibility. I think this has to do with my own personal optimism about the competency of students and the value of autonomy, but it perhaps equally has to do with the student-centred nature of instruction of The Study Academy.

So, in glorious non-chronological order, here are my thoughts:

As we are already well into the academic year, students are facing numerous types of deadlines. Deadlines are, of course, inevitable and necessary fixtures of academic proceedings. If heeded with the proper care, deadlines can incentivize students to develop crucial organizational skills that possess lifelong applicability. And yet, we all know that any kind of project quickly becomes dreary when the looming spectre of a deadline forms the sole motivation for academic progress. We know intuitively that curiosity and innovation resides in domains beyond the fear of a deadline. The ninth principle illuminates why this is the case: “students tend to enjoy learning and to do better when they are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve.” The article refers to deadlines and reward systems (such as the approval of teachers and parents) as examples of extrinsic motivators. The approval of others is certainly not a bad thing in itself, but it does appear that over-reliance on it may not be the most promising enterprise. While intrinsic motivation can come in various forms, researchers say that a really important core belief to achieve it is through the understanding that learning is inherently valuable — this, the authors assert, is one major way students come to progress for their own sake. And since extrinsic conditions are unstable and impermanent, the quest for intrinsic motivation makes for a more resilient position.

So, how do we accomplish this as teachers? In my own experience in this role, I encourage autonomy through classroom discussion and debate. I always strive for a mix of designing discussion topics and allowing students to do so. In my undergraduate degree, I had an English professor who said, “Texts won’t give you answers to questions you don’t ask.” That remark made an instant impression on me. I figured since it wouldn’t be possible for me to predict the questions an instructor expected me to ask, I would necessarily be engaging in a unique and radically individual exercise by posing questions of my own devising. And certainly, as I kept asking the text questions, the more personally relevant my questions became. They became so relevant, in fact, that it felt like I was working beyond the parameters of a single assignment. Thus, when I instruct English courses now, I always put emphasis on open dialogue and reflection, and remind students of the infinity of questions they can ask. My rationale is that if they are able to strike upon an interplay of personal reference points and the work at hand, this constructs a sturdy bridge to a wealth of intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, the meaning of the work has ripple effects far outside the bounds of the particular assignment, and therefore we are not dealing only with extrinsic motivations anymore.

Of course, knowledge acquisition is not limited to gaining entirely new information; it is also about challenging and, if necessary, reshaping previous assumptions and hypotheses. Principle 2 of the article speaks to this by distinguishing between conceptual growth (gaining new information) and conceptual change (reforming old assumptions). The first stage for teachers when exploring new subject matter is to gauge which strategy needs to be employed. Lessons and evaluations provide instructors the chance to gauge the baseline level of understanding. According to the article, if the baseline understanding is in line with curricular expectations, then instructors can plan their exercises in a way that fosters conceptual growth. However, when an instructor encounters a student working under an apparent misconception, instead of simply trying to change that “wrong thinking” on the spot, the instructor might rather set the stage for that student to self-correct. A student is only able to do that, though, if he or she has the space to try and advance their idea to a deeper stage of critical investigation. A tactic I use when I lead class discussions is in a sense echoing responses back to students. If I am able to maintain a non-judgemental yet skeptical tone, it opens up room for what in some cases may be very productive doubt. Moreover, having their ideas voiced by another person can be a way to help students gain critical distance from which vantage point they can either defend, revise, or outrightly change their assertions.

Keeping with the theme of personal responsibility, Principle 7 emphasizes the importance of self-regulation, which includes a broad range of capacities needed for academic success, including attention and self-control. The article stresses that teachers can help students improve these crucial abilities. We agree, and that’s evident through our curricular offerings and daily schedules. Students practice self-regulation everyday through meditation. We organize it so that students engage in the practice in a group, but with total autonomy and control over their experience. Since the only rules are that students sit in a comfortable position in silence, we avoid imposing rigid methodology onto how they self-regulate. Students who use the brain technology games we offer have a similar level of personal freedom while honing their focus. Additionally, the Learning Strategies course can also be a great way for students to work on organizational skills needed to stay on top of course work.

Another way to think about the Learning Strategies course is as an opportunity to transfer skills. Students may learn strategies geared toward building links between separate ideas. That way, in science, they are likely to forge the connection between algae growth and aquatic ecosystems, for example. Another way to think about this academic process is through Principle 4’s discussion of contexts. The authors clarify, first of all, that all learning does in fact occur in particular contexts, and that “generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous but needs to be facilitated”.

One basic question we might ask upon reading this principle is the following: What are some examples of different contexts? Another question may come about when we pay further attention to the language of the principle. How can we as educators “facilitate” both context traversal and the application of ideas from one context to another?

Let’s take one context shift that the article mentions for example: students can take textbook knowledge and see how the ideas actually operate with and animate physical environments. I now realize that this is why I was so intuitively eager to write on the annual Brain Camp (you can access the entry here) event last year. This was an end-of-year event during which students stepped into a diverse set of contexts. They took part in outdoor activities, creative projects, attended various cultural sites, and more. On a broad level, the organization of these multifarious events was the facilitation for students to engage with different contexts. For instance, science experiments gave students the chance to enter a socially interactive and highly sensory context, in contrast to the text-based study of scientific formulas and principles. Or, when students worked on film-making, they entered a context of application for which all their instruction on narrative elements came in handy. One of the substantial boons of these new levels of engagements are that they necessitate mental activity beyond the surface level. Instead of rote memorization, students considering an impressionist painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario must draw from deeper wells of curiosity and critical thinking.

And certainly, students are encouraged to jump between contexts in creative and new ways. After all, Principle 4 is all about frame-breaking and “thinking outside the box”. So, for instance, during Brain Camp when they were asked to cook (or for the assertive students who cook at home), the students might stop and think about the ways in which kitchen utensils are made with materials that optimize heat conductivity for the purpose of cooking, while stifling the distribution of heat along the handles for the purposes of safety. Such an act of application takes conductivity from the subject-specific domain of science and applies it to real life tasks and tools.

Ultimately, the article from the APA strikes me as having the potential to be incredibly useful for students, their parents, and instructors. It includes practical tips for achieving academic objectives and explains why those objectives are worthwhile. While I hope my own thoughts in this piece have made for an interesting read, I strongly encourage readers to peruse the source material, as I’ve referred to a mere fraction of what’s included in it. Happy reading!

It’s Brain Camp!

It’s Brain Camp!

High School Middle School The Study Academy Report

Looking forward to mid-June? If you’re a student of The Study Academy, you should probably start. That’s because we’ve got a truly exciting set of activities planned from June 15-26. It’s our way of both thanking and rewarding students for their progress and hard work this year. And since education is what the staff and faculty here know and love, what better activities to plan than ones of the educational ilk? What we have in store is better than camp – it’s Brain Camp!

For teachers at The Study Academy, one of the objectives that always underlie our lessons plans is to set the stage for student-centred, experiential learning. We use a variety of methods to achieve that end in our classrooms. At its core, the vision of Brain Camp is about expanding those same objectives into a very new set of experiences. So while the activities we’ve planned will optimize long-term skills like critical thinking and problem-solving, we’ve also ensured that they’re interesting and enable the students to engage in practical application. Students will enjoy and be challenged by a QR scan code scavenger hunt, physical education, applied mathematics, cooking, video game creation, current events investigation and reporting, drama and outdoor games, movie-making, science experiments, and art projects.

In addition to bringing about new experiences, we also think of Brain Camp as a great way to get students into new spaces. That’s exactly what we’ll be doing with field trips to the AGO, Skyzone, Bounce World, Brick Works and Queen’s Park. We’ll be starting those days at The Study Academy, but we’ll be venturing out from there (being located so close to public transportation has definite perks!).

Teachers Eric and Jonathan are both eagerly preparing for their roles as coordinators for Brain Camp. In addition to serving as guardians and ensuring everyone’s on schedule throughout each day’s events, they’ll also be taking on the tricky task of consultation for students deciding how and what to investigate during the activities. This means judging when it’s appropriate to lend their voices, and when it’s appropriate to step back. We think striking that balance is the best way to assure a support system so students feel safe enough to partake in independent work.

Brain Camp will take place from 9am-3pm every school day from June 15-26, and will include students from 9-14 years old. We’re proud that in only two weeks from today, we’ll be facilitating this combination of academic enrichment, field trips, and activities, and assisting students in worthwhile accomplishments. See you there!

Take a Break at The Study Academy’s Coffee House and Silent Auction!

Take a Break at The Study Academy’s Coffee House and Silent Auction!

High School

Well folks, the end of term is sneaking up on us again! That means a busy time for students as they gear up to complete summatives and exams. We’ve made careful efforts to ensure that work is worthwhile for students. But we also know deadlines can be stressful. That’s why we’re fantastically excited for our students to have the opportunity to shelve the books for an evening and attend our Coffee House this coming Wednesday, May 20, from 7-9PM.

Our very own student government proposed the idea for the event, presenting it as a great way for the students to showcase their many talents. While sign-ups for performers were progressing a bit slowly on the offset, the students demonstrated that they could hide their talents no longer – and just like that, sign-ups were abound! And we’re sure that readers will agree the set list is quite an impressive one. Fellow students and proud parents will be treated to performances of instrumental music, stand-up comedy, and rap, as well as a fashion exhibition and a sports tricks demonstration (there are also rumours that our favourite band will make a surprise appearance).

But alas! I’ve only covered half the evening’s offerings so far. We’re very proud to report that, in the name of education, the night will feature a Silent Auction, from which all funds raised will go toward supporting our partner school in Zambia. And since the Student Government pulled off the impressive feat of organizing the evening with absolutely zero overhead, every cent we raise will go directly to the Zambian school. The money will enable co-ordinators there to pay rent on a sustainable and safe building, and provide basic school supplies to their students.

Considering the list of fantastic items up for bid, we’re positive that parents will be jumping for ballots. They’ll be bidding on items including a Smart TV, a four-night accommodation in Manhattan, Blue Jays tickets, Factory Theatre tickets, and many more! All items provide great excuses for parents and students to spend quality time together. So join us in the gym on Wednesday evening and take a look at these great items, and don’t forget to check out the talent that students of The Study Academy have to offer!

Speakers of the Oppi Education Festival

Speakers of the Oppi Education Festival

Educational Research The Study Academy Report

For readers looking for innovative ideas in education, we may have discovered something for you to pay attention to: the Oppi Education Festival. Held in Helsinki last year, the festival will be landing a lot closer to home this year in New York. The festival is all about getting educational specialists from all around the world to congregate and share their ideas. Dubbed a festival, rather than a conference, the organizers aim for “a different type of event.” Naturally, such an event has piqued the interest of those of us at The Study Academy. We concur with Sir Ken Robinson in his assertion that our times call for revolutions in how we educate; there seems no better way to oil the wheels of that progress than by ensuring that experienced practitioners have the opportunity to share and receive ideas from their international colleagues.

Given our enduring aim to make learning personalized, we anticipate the theme of the festival this year – the role of gender in education – to inform and dialogue with issues of student-to-student differences in theoretically challenging and pedagogically useful ways. Notable speakers on gender and education who will be delivering talks include Chernor Bah and Jude Kelly. Jude Kelly, citing all kinds of female pioneers in the arts, has spoken at a plethora of events (including TEDx London) advocating for increased opportunities for women. She has extended the spirit of her vast theatre background into the founding of the Southbank Cultural Centre in London England.

While certain speakers appear to have been selected for the direct applicability of their research and work to the specific theme, there’s also an array of notable speakers covering a wider range of education-related topics. For instance, Bethany Koby, a member of the company called Technology Will Save Us, has made a strong case in past public appearances for increased integration of technology inside and outside the classroom as tools to enrich learning. In a past talk, entitled “Will Technology Save Us?,” she exhibited numerous inventions that have already been implemented and engendered productive results. She cites a framework called Maker Movement Constructivism, that she feels comprises endeavours and activities from “giant robots to knitting circles” that use making and technology to “solve problems and to explore”.

But she’s not the only one championing the benefits of experiential learning. Ben Schloger is sure to venture into that terrain as well. He has talks available online in which he’s marketed an educational technology called the Skoog, a cube-like instrument with a soft exterior that encourages tactile learning through an engagement with a three-dimensional object.

You’ll remember I mentioned that the festival is international in scope. Sometimes, challenging the status quo means looking at educational frameworks outside our national borders. For that reason, it’s fortunate that Finnish educational “guru” Pasi Sahlberg will be visiting Oppi as well. Sahlberg has professed a great deal of passion for how Finnish educators educate their students in his home country (here is a great example).

I wonder what Sahlberg would say about that…

He has also warned against a trend the educational frameworks of many nations throughout the world, a trend he refers to as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement). While this trend is too complicated to fully summarize here, it’s clear that Sahlberg wants to see a lot less emphasis on competition and standardization in schools, as well as less accountability. That last one may register as a bit curious (isn’t accountability a good thing?). In Salberg’s view, it becomes problematic when the desire of educators to be accountable to governments eclipses the desire to be responsible in the first place, to care enough about students to ensure success. And among the most admirable points of focus in Sahlberg’s talk is that there is truly a statistical link between gender equality and general quality of education.

Questioning conventional modes of learning is something we love at The Study Academy. Whether you’re interested in attending the festival itself or simply engaging with a plethora of fantastic speakers, you can find out more from the Oppi website.

The Phantastic Quantum Computing Field Trip!

The Phantastic Quantum Computing Field Trip!

High School The Study Academy Report

Pedagogy is a multi-faceted thing. It has curricular and extra-curricular dimensions. And in the 21st century, we at The Study Academy have embraced the role modern technology plays in allowing students to engage with ideas. Enter teacher James Stinson who, in addition to knowing a thing or two in the social sciences, has a pretty firm grasp on advanced technology. James has already figured out ways of using that passion for the benefit of our students. His robotics club has been a big hit in past years and he’s continuing that trend this year. Add to the list the Computer Club that debuted Thursday of last week. With this in mind, it wasn’t surprising that James was a particular fan of Principal Jason Krell’s idea for a field trip to the Institute of Quantum Computing and the Physica Phantastica event at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. In fact, the field trip struck numerous faculty and staff as a very special idea for making an impact on students. We know that so many students today engage with sophisticated technology, from cell phones, to iPods, to various gaming platforms, and many more. And of course, as parents already know, we’re not shy of using modern teaching technology to illuminate our lesson plans and encourage self-knowledge for our students. Our brain wave technology has been an invaluable tool for helping students focus, and our smart boards have allowed us to incorporate various media into the classroom all in one device. But in addition to students using complex devices, we want our bright students to encounter how such devices function, and hear how they’re developed. While the Institute of Quantum Computing and Perimeter Institute in Waterloo were a bit of trek, we figured it was well worth the travel time.

Quantum Computing

On the road to the Quantum Institute.

And it was. The day began with a lecture by Outreach Scientist Dr. Kelly Foyle, whose interesting application of scientific principles made for a special treat: she demonstrated how very entwined birds are in various invisible forces. For example, birds depend on the Earth’s magnetic field and certain quantum effects to help them navigate during seasonal migrations. What an important lecture to remind us that quantum effects aren’t simply an invention of the modern age for the purpose of high-tech computers, but that they’ve been an important part of the natural world for ages. An awe-inspiring thought, one the students have proved they’re happy to engage with. And there was no shortage of people modelling deep thinking. Knowledge, as we came to see, wasn’t only being exchanged on the lecture stand — interested visitors and knowledgeable researchers were grouped around whiteboards, discussing a wide range of topics in the area of theoretical physics. What a great way for Study Academy students to witness the uncontainable nature of the scientific imagination.

After the lecture, students made their way across the snow-laden campus to see the incredible resources housed at the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridas Quantum-Nano Centre, where they encountered gorgeous open architecture. It was a beautiful backdrop against which they were about to glimpse into the heart of technologies that could “harness the quantum laws of nature,” as the Institute’s website boasts. The Institute of Quantum Computing is another fixture that puts on a number of wonderful lectures: in the past, they’ve explored topics like dark matter, the art of ‘guesstimation’, and the history of and science behind the famous Mars Rover. But in order to see why the Institute of Quantum Computing is considered one of the world’s top quantum computing research centres, we wanted physical proof.

Quantum Computing

A cryogenic chamber containing superconducting material.

That was taken care of by Senior Manager of Scientific Outreach, Martin Laforest, who offered explanations, history, and anecdotes on various machines the Institute had on display. He also fielded some really bright and creative questions from our students. While we knew the Institute contained impressive machines such as atomic clocks, we were treated to seeing two  particularly amazing machines that we weren’t expecting. We saw a quantum computer that operates through the use of a 14-watt laser, and another one that functions at temperatures barely above absolute zero (given that it was one of our colder days in November, it wasn’t hard to imagine what absolute zero would feel like). It was a privilege to get a first-hand look at these technologies. And while these machines aren’t likely to be commercially available any time in the near future, they signify massive leaps forward in the field.

With technology getting smaller and smaller, we felt it was so crucial for students to glimpse the features and components of nanotechnology which are integral to the devices they use on a daily basis. We want students to remember the human touch behind all of these technologies, to remind them that their primary purpose is to help them explore ideas and develop skills (in addition to being sources of entertainment). We think the best way to reconnect with that purpose is to see the minds that developed these fantastic technologies in the first place. We look forward to continuing this tradition of fun and educational field trips, even on the snowiest of days!