Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book Review: The Architecture of Learning by Kevin Washburn

Link to review on Amazon

There's a fair amount that we know about learning, and we often place great importance on teaching, but we seem to take for granted the way teaching and learning are related. It is not at all obvious how teaching leads to learning (assuming that it does!) or what is the best way to create an environment for learning. We do have a lot of relevant evidence, but it is rare to see it put together in a useful way.

That's why this is such a wonderful book, the kind that not only teaches you something useful but uses its own principles as an example to do so. The Architecture of Learning illustrates in simple but detailed terms what it takes to get from raw experience to practical skills and knowledge and then provides you with tools to do the same.

Successfully applying his own teaching insights to the structure of this book, Washburn leads you on a journey to personal understanding of the learning process chapter by chapter by first introducing the core processes needed for learning and then progressively deepening and expanding the discussions and examples and using them in different ways and relating them to previous experience.

Many theories of learning emphasize how it builds on previous learning. This book illustrates the process with specific examples and analogies that bring it to life. Most interestingly to me, in the process Washburn effectively links his general learning model with the concept of expertise and its emphasis on the difference between the way experts and novices represent knowledge. He expands on the expertise model by not only acknowledging the critical value of deliberate extended practice, but also describing what is happening prior to effective practice and following effective practice that makes it effective and allows it to transfer to real applications.

By simplifying the process and making particular stages clear, Washburn helps instructors understand the prerequisites for making practice successful (often neglected!), and what they need to do to make it useful outside of educational settings (rarely accomplished!).

The strong point of this book is the way it synthesizes and consolidates major theories of learning in a useful practical way ... The composite model used here describes 4 essential interacting and iterative processes required for learning: (1) accumulating "reference experiences" upon which further learning can be based, (2) labelling and sorting our experience, (3) relating new ideas to past experiences to create deeper understanding, (4) applying what we know in increasingly broader and more realistic contexts.

Each of these subprocesses produces different kinds of outcomes used in the overall learning process. (1) Experience produces reference experiences. (2) Labelling and sorting produce sequences of key points that help us comprehend. (3) Relating ideas generates the understanding we need in order to usefully practice and apply new skills and ideas. (4) Rehearsing the application of new skills and ideas with feedback makes learning available for real situations.

The meat of The Architecture of Learning is then the blueprints that make use of this model. Learning new skills requires somewhat different focus on these different processes than subject matter content, even though the same basic proceses still apply. The blueprints provide a general framework for designing instruction so that the essential learning processes are all engaged, with the proper focus for the type of subject matter. For example, skills require more rehearsal and less relating to past experience than non-skill content, but relating to past experience is still needed at various points to produce the intermediate outcomes needed to prepare for effective rehearsal. This is all taken into consideration by the useful general blueprints in Architecture of Learning.

My biggest concern reading this book was trying to come up with a good strategy for sizing the units of material that this approach would apply to. Breaking some material into 16 or so instructional segments as done in these blueprints would obviously be excessive, although the exercise of doing so might still be useful for an instructor for its own sake. There's a lot of room for judgment here in just how to take a curriculum and divide it up into units that can be structured using these patterns.

Perhaps the most exciting chapters for me are the ones on creative and critical thinking. I really like the way this book makes it clear that various thinking skills are used together with content to deepen learning. I think that's one of the biggest missing pieces in the way learning is often represented. People realize they're missing something in learning, but they seem to look for the missing piece in strange places like "unconscious" learning rather than looking more closely at the constituent skills we use to process ideas. There's a lot of room for thought here, and a very useful general approach for thinking about designing effective instructional experiences.

No comments:

Post a Comment