and Conceptual Development
In 1987 London Robert
K Branson of the Florida State University wrote a paper entitled
"Why Schools Can't Improve: The Upper Limit Hypothesis".
This seminal paper described education as going through a life
for maturing technologies and systems can be represented by
a sigmoid curve. The introduction of any process is characterised
by an extremely slow start with a limited relative productivity.
The slow beginning gives way to a rapidly changing rate until
increases in productivity begin to taper off and the system
approaches the upper limit for the process or technology.
For any system or enterprise there is an upper limit of achievement
at 100% which is never achieved.
An analogy can be
drawn with flight. Initially when ballooning was the only form
of flight, passengers travelled a very short distance and at a
low speed with little control over their direction. As the technology
improved, balloons could fly farther and faster but eventually
their speed and distance reached an upper limit (defined by physical
laws). A new technology was required to enable people to fly faster
and so the glider filed this niche and distance and speeds increased
until once again the upper limit was reached. The motorised aeroplane
took over form here, but it too, reached its upper speed limits.
So technology again came to the rescue and gave birth to the jet-plane,
which literally took off where the petrol driven plane had left
Education is also
a technology, as it meets the need(s) or an opportunity(ies),
and as such it too began slowly with minimum outputs, but following
research and reflection, the education outputs increased dramatically
but they too have tapered off and have reached an upper limit.
Robert K Branson suggests that this was achieved sometime after
1960. What is required urgently is a new technology (system),
to allow us to once again improve the ability of our students
to meet the demands of the 21st century.
As well as including
electronic gadgets, technology can be defined as a system, product
or an environment that meets a need or opportunity. The electronic
technologies will need to be combined with good teaching and learning
practice (environments and systems), in order for this new technology
to take off from where the last technology finished and allow
teachers to raise the teaching and learning outputs significantly.
Over the last three
months we have spoken extensively on teaching practices that encourage
the building of conceptual models of understanding in conjunction
with knowledge and information. But there is also the issue of
cognitive understanding and the skill sets that are required in
order to create conceptual models.Conceptual understanding can
only take place when the student has this set of cognitive skills.
Bloom, Krathwohl et
all have put in place a variety of cognitive schema that we can
work to. These assist us in providing a framework for ensuring
students have the necessary critical thinking skills in order
to develop conceptual models of understanding.
As an example: we
can have a knowledge of global statistics, but if asked for a
common denominator for each of these three groupings of countries:
- Thailand; Sudan;
- Algeria; Mexico;
- England; Russia
. . this knowledge
may be of little assistance to us as many of us do not have a
model of the world and the placement of these cities within that
However if we have
a conceptual framework of the world we can then envision in our
minds the location of each and realise that each country in each
group, is within the same 10 degrees of latitude.
power of conceptual models of understanding is that once created,
the owner has the power to extract more information from them,
than went into creating them.
Rather than breaking
the first law of thermodynamics, (you cannot extract more energy
from a system than went into creating it), we are now applying
the first rule of thinking. If we are able to create models
of understanding of a topic then we are also able to think laterally,
to be innovative, ingenious, imaginative, and develop new thoughts
and new ideas that were previously inaccessible to us. Without
these models it is almost impossible to have lateral thought.
It is these abilities
that set apart people who are considered to be intelligent. In
truth, most students can achieve to this level, but only if they
are taught. Our brighter students tend to discover these processes
and realise their value earlier than less able students but this
does not mean to say that these less able students are unable
to carry out these thinking tasks; they simply may require good
teaching, support and encouragement.
The potential for
increased outputs from school is tantalising but it will need
to come at a cost! The cost will be the redefining in the political,
parental and student mind of intelligence and what the skill set
for the 21st century actually are. This is an education
task of considerable proportion and will need to be addressed
The impact of countries
that adopt these strategies will be significant in both social
and economic performance. The ability of a country to recognise
and support lateral thinking, ingenuity and innovation and develop
products, systems and environments that meet real needs and opportunities
will see it leap ahead of other nations at a considerable pace.
Smaller countries are best placed to achieve this but only through
The new internet technologies
are forming the basis of this potential but it will require considerable
teacher upskilling for the potential to be realised
Online Resources to Build Models of Understanding
In order to build
models of understanding that can be used by learners to extract,
process and apply information, there are some prerequisite skills
that need to be developed.
building models of understanding principles are the trading currency.
In building models of understanding, principles are the key building
blocks as they are extensible whereas facts, by their very nature,
Facts are important
in building the foundations of the model but they are not extensible
and hence are limited when it comes to be applying the model laterally,
imaginatively, or ingeniously.
Some examples of
A principle is that
foot placement is critical to final trajectory of the ball whether
you are playing volleyball, tennis, table tennis, soccer or football.
The principle can be applied to one sport and then transferred
to another. A specific application would have been to teach the
3 second rule in basketball. The fact is not extensible outside
the game of basketball. A principle would be that it never pays
to hold onto any ball too long! This can be applied to almost
all team sports.
In general, much of
the information on the Internet is in the form of facts, (specific
applications) and while facts can contribute to improving models
of understanding we need to develop alongside of these, principles
which can assist in developing much more powerful models. When
looking at using Webquests (online units of work that highlight
high order thinking tasks), as part of your student program, it
is important that the questions that are presented encourage students
to manipulate the information into new formats by asking them
to compare, contrast, invent, predict, compose, analyse, improve,
debate, determine, judge, construct, illustrate, explain . . .
. . . .
is only when students required to manipulate information and re-present
it in a new format/genre that they are forced to understand the
concepts and principles as well as the facts.
The difficulty in
asking these high order thinking questions was that they require
a very rich information environment for the students to research
the question and provide the solutions required. We were stuck
asking low level "projects" for many years as we simply
could not resource high order thinking tasks unless teachers created
their own resources; which of course many did, but you can not
manage all the responsibilities of the teaching career and create
all your own resources all the time.
To a large measure
the internet has provided teachers with this rich information
environment BUT the internet has its own problems! Teachers
and students must be taught the critical thinking skills and searching
strategies necessary to navigate this resource successfully. Being
able to search the web effectively is a critical skill and it
is not just about typing in http://www.google.com/
. There are many internet tools available to teachers that will
enable them to find what they want before they start using search
engines. In the book "Surfing the WEB" we have provided
a process for identifying these resources and how they can be
used successfully by teachers and students.
are a much better tool in many circumstances, and the teachers@work
has over 5000 reviewed web sites that are available to be searched
at no charge.
Several visiting international
speakers have made the point over last several months that much
of what schools do with computer technology is simply "drill
and kill". It should be pointed out that facts form the foundation
of models of understanding and the role of computers in delivering
fact-based information is well established. It is important, however
that we make sure we deliver a range of tasks that build on the
factual foundation and allow students to build strong models whereby
they can develop new knowledge and new understanding. These are
the skills of the lifelong learner.