Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cognitivism in Practice

Our faculty did a book study of Classroom Instruction that Works, so I was quite interested to see that the course textbook for EDUC 6711 was dedicated to supporting those ideas with technology. For me, it has always been a tricky business when selecting appropriate means for students to interact with content. From my vantage point, I can visualize the same concepts via pencil & paper methods as easily as through technology methods. So, if there were no other considerations, I would select whichever is more convenient to create. However, in the role of teacher, I need to be aware of the effectiveness of a particular method from the students' points of view.

Our students are so immersed in technology that it is no longer a special treat to go to the computer lab. Twenty years ago, students would have been excited to use the computers because of the novelty. Now, students carry so much technology with them that schools have had to adopt new policies about technology use to deal with disruptions, cheating, privacy, and security issues. This means that students are often just as reluctant to use the computer as they are to use paper and pencil; they realize that both scenarios indicate that they will need to think-- not just play. For the educator, this is a good thing-- we can focus on the content rather than merely the novelty of using computers.

Concept mapping can easily be done with low-tech solutions such as Post-It (tm) notes on a table or poster board. However, with the invention of software like Inspiration and Kidspiration, the process can easily be automated and even exported in various forms to be used elsewhere. By computerizing tools like this, it frees students' minds to deal with the tasks and concepts at hand, rather than needing to create their own systems of classification and linking. For example, Inspiration has a rapid-fire mode that allows new topic nodes to be created as fast as the user can type. This greatly liberates the brainstorming process, as students are not slowed down by handwriting. Plus, even the most enthusiastic and prolific student will not run out of room for new ideas in a virtual concept map!

However, the classification of ideas and the creation of categories and sub-categories is an important part of the mapping. When students classify information, they must analyze that data in order to place it appropriately. To the cognitive theorist, this is a marvelous means of strengthening those links in the brain, helping to move the ideas from short-term to long-term memory.

Virtual field trips are an enormous cost-saving measure in these tight economic times. Yet instead of using them just as a replacement for costly physical journeys, those same virtual field trips can be a much more common part in the life of a class. By venturing out into the world from a virtual perspective, there are certain benefits for students. For example, students who are shy and reserved when they leave their comfort zone may actually learn more in the virtual trip than the same trip done in a more traditional fashion. That student can take comfort in the familiarity of their usual classroom environment yet still gain the experience that their more extroverted classmates may enjoy.


  1. It amazes me how often my students ask if we can play a game in class. I try to make review games and other activities for my students to do but when the time actually comes to play the game they are often shocked that the game is still going to involve math. They seem to think that if they request that we play a game we are then going to have a class period where we do not do any work (a good plan on the day before a test).

    I agree with you about the virtual field trips. I think that using virtual field trips in a classroom could have a dramatic effect on students’ focus and information retention.

  2. Ryan --

    I agree with your observations! I have largely stopped using games in my HS math classes for two reasons. One is the one you describe- students seem to think that "game" means "no thinking." Even when I put the game in context of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" "Jeopardy", "Taboo", or "Scattegories", students still seem shocked to see the math content as part of the game. The second reason is because even for review, games really put students on the spot, making students who have not mastered the material extremely uncomfortable. This causes them not to enjoy the game, and actually alienates them from the practice of playing games in class.