Book Review: The Architecture of Learning

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“We are not merely educating students in the details of Columbus, magnetism, and predicate adjectives.  We are teaching future judgement makers.  Whether our students assess the validity of legal arguments, the wisdom of purchasing a new home, or the ethics of using new methods, their success depends, in large part, on how well they learn to think.  That in turn depends on how well they are taught.  By combining thinking and teaching, we create opportunities to foster independent thinking–the capacity and courage to ask questions that will overcome self-centered and conformist thinking to pursue truth.” Dr. Kevin Washburn, The Architecture of Learning

My goal as a high school principal is to lead our teachers to invest in the hearts and minds of our students for the glory of God and the good of others.  We don’t train students to make widgets or sprockets on an assembly line or even specifically to be a this or a that in the professional world.  Instead our desire is to challenge our students in such a way that they are equipped to think, to figure things out, to work well with others, to get their point across, and most importantly…to impact the world for Christ.  My driving passion is for our students to have the tools they need to sit at the table of influence in the communities they choose to plant themselves in for college, career, and beyond.  Our high school is a training ground for students who desire to be world changers and difference makers for the sake of the gospel to the glory of God for the good of others.  One of the most basic pieces of that strategy is to teach our kids how to think.

Four summers ago, I had the privilege of sitting in a series of lectures by Dr. Kevin Washburn at the International Institute for Christian Educators at Columbia International University.  His goal was to show us how learning really worked.  He has done quite a bit of neurological research combined with years of experience in the classroom and in the field of education to put together a very practical resource in his book The Architecture of Learning.  I read the book immediately after the conference and then picked it up again a few days ago in preparation for our academic team’s meeting with Dr. Washburn tomorrow.

The Architecture of Learning makes a wonderful distinction between instructional design and lesson planning.  Just the term instructional design even sounds more exciting!  Imagine how much more captivating a classroom is when it is designed…rather than just planned to cover content over a specific period of time.  Dr. Washburn’s work covers all of the 21st century learning skills in a way that practically demonstrates how these skills must overlap…silos won’t work in education anymore..it’s just not how life really works.

I highlighted several things the first time I read this book and highlighted several more things this week in re-reading.  I’ve posted the items I highlighted below…

  • To be effective, a teacher must align instructional methods with learning’s cognitive processes, the brain’s ways of constructing understanding and forming memories.  Although “teachable moments” do occur spontaneously, a good teacher provides consistently effective design instruction.  Learning is produced through deliberate instructional design.
    Instructional design differs from lesson planning, the term we traditionally use to describe a teacher’s pre-instruction preparation.  Though planning implies forethought, design reaches beyond the standard plan.  Designers communicate by intentionally combining elements.
  • Lessons read from lecterns limit learning because they fail to engage essential learning processes.
  • the quality of a teacher’s instructional design often determines the quality of a teacher’s instruction.
  • Five processes, or building blocks, interact to produce learning: Experience, Comprehension, Elaboration, Application, Intention
  • Through elaboration, the brain examines comprehended (i.e., labeled and sorted) data to identify patterns, uses the patterns it recognizes to recall relevant instances from long-term memory, and overlays or blends the new data with known experience.  You mix the old dollop (previous experience) and a new dollop (new data) to create a new concept.
  • Elaboration makes material memorable and meaningful.
  • Elaboration leads to learning that is lasting, influential, and occasional life-changing.
  • Experience provides the new data that will be used to construct new knowledge.  Comprehension provides the content structure of the developing knowledge.  Elaboration emphasizes the organization component of comprehension by relating similar previous experiences.  Application engages the brain in recall of the labeled and sorted data.
  • Curiosity carries learning forward.
  • A teacher begins designing effective instruction by first examining the subject matter and answering the related questions: What will your students be learning?  and What will they do with their learning?
  • How will you focus your students’ attention and engage the mental processing needed to construct the learning?  How will the flow of instruction mirror the brain’s means of learning?
  • Students who master certain skills but lack the conceptual understanding necessary to recognize where those skills are valuable lose opportunities to apply them in life.
  • Widening the contexts in which the students can use their learning promotes transfer.  The Intention strand increases the likelihood that material learned in school will influence a student’s interactions with the world.
  • Critical thinking is a purposely engaged manner of reasoning.
  • Critical thinking involves monitoring and assessing one’s own thinking or that of other.
  • Critical thinking involves evaluation in relation to established standards.
  • Critical thinking considers relevant contextual elements.
  • Critical thinking employs specific skills.
  • Where and when are students taught to process new information and proceed through the steps that lead to excellence in self-directed learning and communication?
  • We are not merely educating students in the details of Columbus, magnetism, and predicate adjectives.  We are teaching future judgement makers.  Whether our students assess the validity of legal arguments, the wisdom of purchasing a new home, or the ethics of using new methods, their success depends, in large part, on how well they learn to think.  That in turn depends on how well they are taught.  By combining thinking and teaching, we create opportunities to foster independent thinking–the capacity and courage to ask questions that will overcome self-centered and conformist thinking to pursue truth.
  • Experience prompts thinking that creates expression.
  • Creativity comprises thinking (process) and doing (ability), moving from imagination to invention, from the conceptual to the concrete, from idea to realization.
  • Creativity possesses the potential to energize and increase learning.  Why, then, is it not applied more commonly in our classrooms?
  • Schools may offer us opportunities for additional training and education, but whether we grew as educators or not would be our choice and responsibility.
  • May our teaching ignite learning that validates our committed, daily, and intentional instruction efforts.

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