October 25th, 2009Robots in the classroom?

Well, it seems that’s exactly where they need to be if they are ever going have the ability to learn and function on their own. New research into machine learning has pointed out a few important points about how children learn and how they do it better and faster than current robots. This research together with past contributions from the fields of psychology and neuroscience can help us to evolve our teaching styles. The main focus of the research (The paper is entitled ‘Foundations for a New Science of Learning’ by Meltzoff et al.) was on the social context in which humans learn. Within that social context humans are able to accelerate learning through imitation, empathy and shared attention. (Image courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Animation2.gif)

Learning is social and it turns out that the social context of learning is one of the ways in which humans accelerate the learning process. By imitating others’ behaviours children learn faster than with individual discovery by trial and error. Empathy allows children to use observation to create first person knowledge, by observing a person “like me” they can learn from their actions instead of directly. This also works in the other direction as well where children can interpret behaviours and experiences of others by using themselves as a model.  Neuroscience has identified that links in the brain occur between perception and action, perhaps allowing this process or as a result of it. Either way there is a close coupling between self and others wired into our brains. Social learning also requires shared attention on an object or task, which allows for communication and social learning and teaching.

But what does this mean for our classrooms?

Make learning social and try to incorporate a social aspect into individual tasks. For example, a discussion or question period.

Demonstrate tasks to help students grasp causal relationships more quickly.

Children are empathetic and understand that their behaviours and actions are similar to others. Having children discuss their experiences will help them gain insight from their classmates. Also, having children work together on a task gives them the shared attention and social outcomes that allow them to learn from each other.

Face to face tutoring is the most effective way of teaching, but no teacher has this luxury. Try pairing students up to achieve a similar outcome (put more advanced children with those that might be having difficulties understanding concepts).
Find ways to incorporate informal learning into your lessons. Informal learning is often highly social and harnesses children’s natural curiosity to enhance learning

Many multi-disciplinary research can have a profound impact on seemingly unrelated fields. Turns out there is a lot of science in teaching too!

September 18th, 2009Science, teaching and controversy


Roman fresco from Boscoreale (source Wikipedia)

The “Thaumatrope” video and teaching notes we just posted take us into an area of science that is still developing. Whilst everyone agrees that there is an optical illusion occurring (it was first noted by the Romans some 2000 years ago), the science of what is causing the illusion is still being debated.

The ‘traditional’ hypothesis about this phenomenon was that of “persistence of vision”. This stated that the retina (the light sensing organs at the rear of the eye) holds an “after image” for about 1/25th of a second. This placed the reason for the optical illusion in the eye. Since the early 20th century, the understanding of the human vision system has placed far greater emphasis on what is occurring in the brain as images are processed. However, there is still no complete understanding of this.

As a consequence, there are various competing theories all claiming to explain the optical illusion that we can see in the thaumatrope.

This illuminates a very real problem that science teachers frequently encounter: students perceive science and its ‘truths’ as information that is fixed and unchanging. Part of a science teacher’s responsibility is to convey science as a field of study that is evidence based – and if new evidence comes to light, then the ‘truths’ change! Exploring subjects such as the thaumatrope allows us to show science as a living, changing field of study, one in which debates and uncertainty exist and highlight the evidence basis of scientific enquiry.

© 2009 What is the Science?