The Learning Process

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Last week, I was invited by a group of EAB students to participate in a formal debate over whether or not cell phones should be allowed in classrooms. While listening to the students’ arguments for and against the proposition, I reflected, as I often do, on the process of learning and what constitutes effective instruction. While the issues associated with the use of technology in education are complex, it was the process the students were embracing that was of most interest. Preparing a rational and researched defense of their argument that will pass the scrutiny of their peers is no easy feat. The fact that there is no clearly defined response to the cell phone proposition is emblematic of the issues we often face as adults; meaningful and important problems are rarely categorized as simple, binary black and white options, but rather reside in the awkward grey areas.

The critical thinking element of the learning process is arguably one of the most important skills students can develop, especially when navigating the challenges associated with establishing informed opinions about issues that fall into the thorny grey areas. It was, therefore, reassuring to hear an EAB alumna, speaking at today’s high school assembly about her transition to university, highlight this very point through the following statement: “EAB prepared me for the expectations of an UnB teacher: proactivity and critical thinking.”

Critical thinking is a focus area that is prioritized at EAB. While it is often easier to deal with categorical problems that can easily be pigeonholed, a more essential learning process involves a commitment to thinking deeply about complex issues and forming an educated and defensible opinion. However, this deeper form of learning is only achieved through a higher degree of commitment, perseverance, patience, and deferred gratification.

The question of deferred gratification was examined in a Stanford University experiment conducted more than 40 years ago. Young children were left alone in a room with one marshmallow sitting on plate in front of them. The children were told that if they did not eat the marshmallow while the adult was not present, then the child would receive a second marshmallow when the adult returned. Of the 600 children who participated in the experiment, approximately one third were able to delay gratification by not eating the marshmallow, who were then rewarded with a second marshmallow. While it appeared to be a simple experiment, the consequences associated with the ability to delay gratification were significant. Over the next 30 years, the researchers followed the students as they matured into adulthood and discovered a very strong correlation such that the students who waited had ended up with better grades and higher SAT scores, were healthier and in better physical shape, enjoyed more successful relationships, and achieved greater professional success. The implications related to the ability to delay gratification have had a significant influence on education and learning. [More information about the “marshmallow experiment” can be found via the following links: Businessweek, New Yorker, TED]

Returning to the cell phone debate, it was intriguing to hear one of the students comment on her inability to control a tendency to check her cell phone every few minutes for messages, which the group concurred represented a distraction that everyone in the room also found to be a challenge. The concept of delayed gratification was a prominent feature with the use of cell phones in this class, as it also seems to be with many of us.

The cell phone debate ended with both student groups presenting compelling arguments for and against the use of cell phones in the classroom. Beyond the debate, however, it was the instructional practice that I found to be the most intriguing aspect of the class. Students were developing the skills to delay gratification through the process of learning how to think critically about a complex issue, rather than blindly accepting a simple “yes” or “no” response, and publicly articulating their refined thoughts in a passionate and articulate manner. It was learning at its best.

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND 2.0 ) flickr photo by Octavio Solórzano: http://www.flickr.com/photos/octaviosolorzano/5010443243/

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