One of the topics that can fuel hours of teacher dialog is the difference between assigning tasks and teaching the process by which tasks can be pursued through inquiry. Assigning might consist of telling students to do a task. Teaching a process involves teaching approaches to learning, which might allow students to problem solve for the task.
It is one thing to talk about how scientists solve problems using scientific inquiry, and it is another thing altogether to experience using scientific inquiry to solve a problem. In every discipline or subject, there are patterns of thinking employed systematically by the people who work in that discipline, which are particularly developed by practitioners in that discipline.
Schooling as it exists has been structured for people to learn how to learn in disciplines. The ways of doing and learning in a discipline follow systematic approaches which help to inquire in the discipline, and these are the experiences we attempt to provide in school, so that our students understand the systems within a discipline, and how these systems help the practitioner to inquire, reflect and take action.
In sciences, the ways of doing research or inquiry have common threads. Research is a big part of each discipline. In studies of language and literature, for instance, experiences in organizing communication of ideas and experiences in the actual production of these ways of communication are predominant approaches for those who communicate through language and literature; authors write specific texts for specific purposes.
Part of our planning of learning in a subject involves planning for experiences wherein students learn and use skills and approaches particular to that subject. Some of the questions we might have in how to do this in a unit of inquiry may include:
- How do we embed skills into a unit with context, content and concepts?
- How do we plan for students to experience, as authentically as possible, the ways of doing what people do in a particular field?
- How do we integrate skills and approaches to learning in a subject as effectively as possible?
These questions of instructional design might give us a hint of the complexity that an integrated and holistic planning approach requires. Design is a creative process, which involves evaluation at every step of the way, and demands of the designer an ability to iterate: to test and use a feedback loop to inform further revisions of the design until the desired outcome is achieved.
The approaches to learning in a subject
What do scientists do?
Science is a good example for a subject with a systematic way of approaching learning. Scientists have a specific way of arriving at understanding – the scientific method. Through research and investigations, scientists have arrived at the body of knowledge which exists because scientists perpetually investigate and demystify how the world works. Through the scientific method, students can also experience the ways that science arrives at understanding. Through research and experiments, students can arrive at understanding the principles that scientists have learnt and used to solve authentic problems and illuminated the thinking through science in our world.
Not only the natural sciences use specifically created methods to find solutions to questions about how the world works. Human sciences, the humanities, have also adopted systematic research and investigation to find solutions to problems in these fields. In psychology, geography, history, and other human sciences, research and investigation play a large role in demystifying the world.
The goal for doing in the social sciences, therefore, remains very close to doing in the natural sciences, in that students might experience problem solving through investigation and research. In this discussion of the integration of skills and practice in units, it is helpful to look at investigation as an experience for students of a subject, in which knowledge is used in processes, which help students to learn and do in a subject.
The process of investigation
Process learning is often more effective when the learner actually experiences the process. Designing ways for students to experience research as it is done in a subject is therefore a worthy pursuit in the unit plan. Repeated rehearsal in the problem-solving process that a practitioner uses in that subject is essential for students to truly understand what it is like to be a practitioner in that subject.
As students rehearse the process through repeated use, habituated thinking within those approaches are more likely to happen (Brown & Bennet, 2002). The implications are that as students learn the process, the teacher might:
- Draw attention to the reasons why specific steps in a process are taken, to establish the significance of these in the process
- Facilitate awareness of changes that might result in the students’ thinking as they use the process
- Allow students to make connections between their own thinking and the effects a specific thinking pattern might have on the process
- Embed opportunities for reflection and metacognition within the process
- Find ways to highlight similarities between processes used to solve different problems in the same subject with different contexts, content and concepts, to facilitate understanding of the approach as part of the systematic pattern of thinking and learning in that subject
- Provide ways for students to highlight transfer of the process in other situations, for example, in solving unfamiliar problems
The implications above also point out the importance of teaching the process rather than just assigning the process (Merzenich et al., 1996). Assuming that students naturally know how to use a process as they get older, for instance, is unwise because there might be no default setting for these processes, which have been constructed to support learning in a subject by those who have developed expertise in the subject’s approaches to learning.
How a teacher breaks down the processes and helps students to learn multiple pathways to understanding impact how effectively the student can use the processes to learn in that subject.
How do you break down the processes and approaches in your discipline? I invite you to share your ideas in a comment.
Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076
Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377