The aim of the educational system nowadays seems to be training students to develop knowledge about a certain topic. In my opinion, the aim of education should be to learn how to think critically instead of learning facts. The past year, I’ve been working on effective learning in which the most important factor is the awareness of your own thought process, also known as cognitive awareness. After attending the ATD conference (Talent Development) in Denver, I’ve been inspired to keep looking at the possibilities in learning and to let people be aware of their own learning process and to find out what learning strategies work best for each individual. At this conference, one of the workshops I attended was about the neuroscience of learning, presented by the South African neuroscientist André Vermeulen. In his talk, Vermeulen pointed out the importance of being aware of how your brain works in the process of learning. Everyone is unique and learns in his or her own way. The educational systems often do not support the individual needs of each student, and are therefore in desperate need of change. The educational systems should focus on cognitive awareness and experiential learning to become more effective.
Cognitive awareness or metacognition refers to “cognition about cognition” (Flavell 12) and is thus the process of understanding your own thought process. Every person has different needs as it comes to learning. The educational system should be focusing on the development of each individual instead of creating an environment in which students are forced to gain certain knowledge in a way the teacher thinks works best. Differences in preferences are environmental, time-related and depended on the preferred style of teaching and learning (Randy and Corno 47-49). This means that everyone has different needs regarding the time and place of learning and obviously regarding learning styles. The learning styles are normally divided in four different styles; auditory, visual, kinesthetic and reading/writing (Fleming and Mills 140-141). Most people have a preference for one or a combination of two learning styles. The majority of the teachers use only one learning style while teaching, normally auditory. Approximately 30 percent learns most effectively by hearing information. That means that for only 30 percent of the students the classes are effective. When students are aware of their preferences regarding learning styles and the way of teaching, education could be way more effective for every student.
As no one is the same, the educational systems should stop treating every student equally in the sense of how the curriculum is presented. Everyone deserves a chance to develop themselves as much as possible and there should not be any restrictions to learning. How does a little kid learn how to walk? By doing. How did you learn how to drive? By doing. By experiencing. By failing. Nowadays, we are afraid of failing. Failing should be the preferred way to learn. The best way to learn is by experiencing, by doing and therefore by failing; humans are not flawless (Devasagayam and Johns-Masten and McCollum 2). Humans make mistakes. As long as we give people the chance to fix their mistakes in their own way, we keep developing ourselves and our brains to come up with new solutions to certain problems we face in our everyday lives. Experiential learning can be applied to every learning style and is therefore suitable for every student. Experiential learning stimulates students to develop analytical, decision-making and problem-solving abilities (Devasagayam and Johns-Masten and McCollum 3).
Another reason metacognition and active learning styles are important is explainable by looking at the structure of the brain. The neural systems in the brain are formed using various learning strategies, and especially the strategies in which your brain is challenged to perform a certain task in a different way. The Brain Processing Model explains three phases in which the brain processes information. The first phase is the short-term memory, and then comes the working memory, and finally the long-term storage (Sousa 56). The goal of learning is generally to be able to retrieve the information stored in the long-term storage. When information is processed correctly, there should be an interaction between the working memory and the long-term storage.
Another, perhaps clearer way of explaining these three stages is by comparing the short-term memory with the very first “learning” phase. In this stage, the brain acquires new information and skills. Then, the second stage is “memory”, which is comparable to the working memory. This stage establishes the way our brain stores the information and skills learned in the first stage. Finally, the long-term storage is comparable to the “retention” stage; the long-term memory preserves learning in a way that it can locate, identify and retrieve it. In order to make sure the brain processes the information sufficiently, using active learning strategies is required. Examples of active learning strategies are teaching others, practice doing, discussing and demonstrating the information you’re asked to learn. Those strategies are way more effective than simply listening to or reading about the information you’re required to learn. Of course, most information is presented in books and should be read before you can start explaining it to others. However, the reading strategies are crucial for the rest of the learning process. When using effective reading strategies, such as annotating and summarizing, you’ll be able to process the information way more efficiently and actively than when a passive form of reading is used. The more senses you use while learning, the more neural networks are formed by your brain (Vermeulen). Knowing what learning style is the most effective for you is part of the process of cognitive awareness and thus needed in order to create the best possible learning environment for each individual.
As neuroscientist André Vermeulen explained in the workshop I attended at the ATD conference; the most effective way to learn is by connecting the two hemispheres of the brain while working on a certain task. The left hemisphere is considered the analytical part while the right hemisphere is the creative side of the brain. According to Vermeulen, you can train your brain to let the two hemispheres work together in order to create the best possible circumstances for your brain to create new neural networks. I had the chance to talk to Dr. Vermeulen after his talk and I asked him what his point of view was on learning styles and the connection between learning styles, the brain and effective learning. He explained that the most important part of creating a connection between the two hemispheres of your brain is to understand the structure of your brain and how you can influence that. When you know what exercises or styles work for you in order to memorize and retrieve certain information better, you can say you’re aware of your own thought process, Vermeulen stated during the interview. During our conversation, he agreed with me on the statement that schools should focus on cognitive awareness and experiential learning instead of passive forms of learning. It was very interesting to hear his point of view as he had a different perspective as I had. In my opinion, cognitive awareness and experiential learning are important for the personal development of each student and contribute to the further education. Vermeulen looked at the same topic from the perspective of a neuroscientist and made me recognize that active forms of learning are not only important for personal development, but also for the structure of the brain and therefore for the cognitive development of each individual. Active forms of learning and being aware of your own thought process are key components for effective learning and developing the brain structures.
Active learning is not just a popular theme and only of this time. Around 1900, the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori became famous for her progressive view on the educational system. The Montessori system is generally a good example of an educational system in which active learning is stimulated. Montessori students are generally known as well-developed students and have a broad general knowledge and a broad view on life. Active learning is the form of learning in which the brain is stimulated to develop the thinking process and therefore enlarging the neural networks in the brain. The Montessori system focuses on interactive learning and learning in groups. “Montessori classrooms ideally contain age groupings spanning three years” (Lillard 165), this format is developed to let students learn from each other instead of from adults who have a bias towards development. The teachers are there just to guide the students’ engagements with the materials, but the students are totally free to engage in the way they prefer. In the Montessori system, each student is taught to think critically and develop themselves as independent thinkers. This system forces students to develop cognitive awareness and to find out what learning strategies and styles work best for each of them. The well-developed general knowledge of Montessori students is a result of the free way of teaching and learning in which students find their own interest and way of learning. I believe that this is the best way of learning; gaining knowledge and developing your own interest in the way you whish as a student. Also, you’ll not only learn certain facts and information about a topic or subject you’re required to learn, but also other skills such as presenting and discussing which are very useful for any further education.
On the other hand, learning facts and gaining some general knowledge is definitely useful for any further education and to be prepared for life. Facts and general information is the basis for any form of learning. Without general information, there’s no way you can develop your abilities in effective learning. How the curriculum is presented is the foundation for developing cognitive awareness. Nevertheless, I think the focus of education should be on the process of development and metacognition instead of simply memorizing facts.
Why are we going to school? Why are we learning something? These questions should be considered before we ask what we do at school and what we learn. The purpose of education should be clear in order to make the educational system way more effective. Why you are learning is more important than what you’re learning or how you’re doing it. To compare this to effective learning; before you start learning or reading something, the purpose should be clear and you’ll have to ask yourself the questions why the writer wrote this, why you’re asked to read or learn it and why this certain information could be meaningful for you. Asking these questions to learn more about the purpose of you learning this certain information will help you as a student in your learning process.
One of the three keynote speakers at the ATD conference I attended was Simon Sinek, a writer and speaker on leaderships and management (startwithwhy.com). Sinek became famous by his TEDtalk and concepts on ‘The Golden Circle’ and ‘Start with why’. He argues that in order to be a good leader and lead an effective business; you should always start with questioning ‘the why’. By asking ‘why’, you’re aware of the purpose and on the process you’ll use to tackle the problems or obstacles you’ll face while reading or learning the writing. Asking ‘why?’ leads to cognitive awareness. Cognitive awareness is needed in order to be more effective in your learning process and makes sure the purpose of learning is clear. Sinek uses the example of one of the worlds biggest companies: Apple. Apple is a very successful company due to the fact that their business plan started with asking ‘why?’ before ‘what?’ and ‘how?’. Why do we make products, what is the purpose? In order to be effective in learning, you should start asking the same question as Apple does. Being aware of the process you’re about to face for either creating a product for your business or for studying is crucial in order to make the process effective.
In conclusion, the educational system should be focused on cognitive awareness and effective learning to improve the effectiveness of learning for all students, personal development, brain development and to be prepared for future education.
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