Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Most Important Loop in Learning

A simple graphic represting a "feedback loop"

in "What can I do for my students that would have the greatest impact on their learning?" This question is simple and results-oriented, and I think that we all want to know the answer, since we all are teachers in some capacity!
All that being said, these words from Helen Keller about the teaching that she experienced speaks volumes without empirical data: 
"It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me." 
On a different note, I will credit Steve LoCascio, who was my "co-operating teacher" as I was learning, with demonstrating that the properly-timed application of the right information and motivation profoundly affected students as individuals and groups. 
In both cases, the power of high quality feedback was highlighted. Feedback is something that we seek as naturally curious creatures: we want to know if our actions have created the result that we imagined. In the learning process, the repeating path of action, feedback, adjustment, and trying again is a loose description of a "feedback loop".
So how important is feedback, really? Imagine trying to learn something without feedback for a moment. It's a bit like trying to park a car in utter darkness! Deprived of direction based upon our performance of a task, we may conitnue to grow in any direction with regard to that task, including a negative one! 
Now we come to a point in connecting this idea to lab work for students: if this strategy is to be effective, feedback and multiple feedback loops must be part of any well-designed lab experience. While this may sound "good", or "obvious", as pointed out in previous posts, it is not the norm. Lab exercises unfortunately are "one-and-done" and rarely revisited. Another important point arises from this: in STEM education, design is emphasized, which in itself is a process involving (you guessed it) feedback loops! Only one conslusion is possible from these facts: common science labwork is inherently incompatible with what we intuitively understand about STEM and design!
Yes, during my in-service, it came to light that feedback trumped all other teacher actions in improving student achievement, including having students do homework. Simple homework, or practice, without feedback, should be rethought and then discarded. Feedback might come in many forms, and does not mean that every stroke of the student's pencil, or keyboard, must be viewed, analyzed and reported back. It does mean that meaningful feedback is necessary to keep the practice from being a waste. 
I am extremely interested in your thoughts on this topic. I believe this should be the cornerstone idea behind any learning environment, from a "brick and mortor" classroom to an online learning system. So yes good reader, I now ask you for what we all need to learn *grins* feedback!

I promise that I will return to the Curiosity mission in my next post. Until then, I can recall sitting in a teacher "in-service" many years ago. Let's say 15 years ago +/- 5 years. The presentation was interesting, and had to deal with research on what teacher activities improved student learning. These activities included lecturing, one-to-one practice, tutoring, cooperative learning and several other teaching techniques and behaviors. Perhaps I am too competitive, but I was interested

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