What happens when we learn? Download High Quality Learning and have a close look at it: High quality learning
We learn by interconnecting brain cells. We encode the meaning of what we have learned in a little cluster of interconnected brain cells. This cluster of brain cells is called a ‘construct’.
The new construct (shown red in the diagram) is connected to what the learner already knew when they started learning (shown black in the diagram). This is rather as a dictionary explains an unfamiliar word, by describing its meaning with familiar words. Familiar is black in the diagram, unfamiliar is red.
This construct is the learner’s version of what they have learned. So it will be incomplete and may contain some misconceptions.
So good teaching must require students to form a ‘construct’ and then must check and correct it.
Let’s look at the cycle in the High Quality Learning handout being used in practice. Here is a teaching sequence that follows the cycle, it is adapted from the excellent: “Assessment for learning: putting it into practice” Paul Black et al 2003:
1. Warn students what is about to happen by describing the sequence below.
2. Explain some new material in your usual ways.
3. Ask students to create a suitable mindmap to summarise the topic.
4. When their mindmap is nearly complete, ask students to leave it on their desk, and to move around to look at everyone else’s mindmap. The aim is to learn how to improve your own mindmap.
5. Students improve their mindmaps.
6. Students self or peer assess their mindmaps. Give them some assessment criteria to do this with. For example a list of things that should appear on their map. Or show your own mindmap.
Notice that the learner must make a ‘construct’ (personal understanding) to create their mindmap. Also, while they look at their peers’ mindmaps, they improve their own constructs.For example a student might think:
“Oh, I had forgotten that”
“Oh that’s a good way to describe it.”
Then students go through this same improvement process when they self or peer assess their mindmaps against the teacher’s assessment criteria, or mindmap.
See Teaching Today chapter 1 or Evidence Based Teaching chapter 2 for a full explanation.
The High Quality Learning diagram is not anatomically correct of course. It is very ‘diagramatic’ but does explain what happens when we learn.