Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tools to Expand the Mind

This weeks readings were much more comprehensible for me, and felt much more comfortable in my mind. Last week focusing on behaviorism I had a terrible time trying to pull from my experience and see how it either fell into the behaviorism camp, or was opposed to it. I spent so much time trying wrap my head around the whole thing that I didn't spend much time looking at what I do through that particular lens. This week I am much more comfortable. I'm not sure if the reason is that I feel more at ease using the strategies from the cognitive learning theory, or I am just more familiar with them. Regardless, this week has been much more comfortable for me.

For my own learning I have been using strategies that fall in line with the cognitive learning theory for years. I am a verbal learner and write summaries of new information. I rarely organize the summaries on paper but leave them as lists and organize as I write. I use all kinds of highlighting, color-coding, and note taking strategies that I have developed or modified to help me hang on to information. I have, however never really been able to pass these strategies on to students and have realized that being explicit, and teaching students how to use tools to extend the power of their minds so they can learn and recall information is an important part of teaching. Teaching learners how to learn is a crucial step in helping students develop into life-long learners and using the strategies discussed this week is a great way to start.

A suggested strategy was to use mind-tools such as spreadsheets for processing data or concept-mapping tools to process information. (Laureate Education, Inc, 2011) A quote from the teacher who was talking about using a spreadsheet with students was that doing the calculations by hand was possible, but it didn't add to the students mathematical understanding. (Laureate Education, Inc) That line had a powerful impact on my understanding of using cognitive-tools. I finally had a grasp of the power of the tool. Though the students were using it to do something they could have done themselves, it wasn't just that it was faster to use the spreadsheet, but that using it freed up "mind space" for more creative thinking. This is certainly using an application as a cognitive tool to distribute cognition; adding the power of the human mind to the power of the computer and letting the human mind do what the computer can not, be creative.

Information processing falls within the cognitive learning theory. It states that learning starts with sensory information. If you attend to the information it moves into short term memory and there are limits to the amount of information you can process in short term memory. Using mind-tools can extend those limits greatly. As a teacher I can provide tools like graphic organizers to help students capture information, and in more than one sensory register (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011). Using questions I can help students process information deeply thus allowing it to move from short-term to long term memory. Moving to long-term memory requires active participation of the learner and Pitler, Hubbell and Kuhn's suggestions would help accomplish that. They suggest using cues, questions and organizers as well as summarizing and note taking (2012). All of these strategies help the learner process information, allow the learner to elaborate by making connections to previous learning and using combination notes specifically allow learners to include pictographs or other graphics in their notes.(2012)  This facilitates making connections to more than just the verbal center of the brain, thus making it easier to retrieve.

I need to be more conscious of my teaching strategies so that I can explicitly and clearly teach skills to support student learning. I have used some of these tools in the past, but have never been focused on the power of the tool,  I have focused instead on the result of using the tool. Working with students who have gaps in their English language skills, it is doubly important to give them tools that extend their power to learn. These can amplify their efforts and give them greater results with the same amount of energy expended. Giving them episodic memories through virtual field trips (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011)  providing the structure of graphic organizers or scaffolds for note taking and summarizing necessary to process new concepts, (Pittler, Hubbell & Kuhn, 2012) allowing them to add multiple sensory inputs will all present an enriched classroom experience so that they can take full advantage of the time they have to learn.


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Program five: Cognitive learning theory [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., & Kuhn, M. (2012). Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works--2nd ed. Alexandria: ASCD.


  1. I, too, felt much more comfortable with this week's resources and for the same reasons you mentioned!

    I also find myself making multiple lists, using color-coding and highlighting and generally being a verbal learner. I have "caught" myself numerous times inadvertently trying to force verbal learning strategies onto my kids--something I think that is hard to avoid as a foreign language teacher!--and I wondered if you could empathize?

    Also: what kind of virtual field trips do you see as being useful for your classes?

    1. Since I am working with teachers and not students this year, I will suggest field trips that fit in with the objectives they are focused on. Our students often have few experiences that are clear to them because parents may not be able to communicate well with them, so any time we can give students experiences that also have language involved is a positive. I have mostly worked with elementary students, so have never really passed on my strategies. I think working with students who are deaf/hard of hearing who generally are delayed in their language development we are more focused on basic skills. So often we have to fill in gaps before we can move on that teaching organizational skills to elementary students never occurred to me. I'm thinking it would have been an excellent skill to give them however.

  2. Mary,

    As much as I understand behaviorism and know I use it both as a teacher and a parent, I also appreciated this week's learning theories much more. I like to think as a teacher I am building students to become independent thinkers and workers, not dogs or rats responding to stimuli!

    I teach music and sometimes come across the occasional student who doesn't see the value in the class. At those moments, I have the opportunity to speak with students about learning in general, how our brain reacts and stores new information. Because not every student will become a musician at the high school or college level, I like the opportunity to help them see how music can help them in other subject areas through the use of subject fact raps and or songs. These are the connections that our resources talked about this week. I do feel we need to share with students as often as possible about different ways to study and learn; if they hear different ideas, they will have the opportunity to try different approaches and find what works best for them.

    1. It's sometimes so hard to accept that something we love to learn about and find incredibly enjoyable is not exciting to our students. I think your idea of explaining how we learn and how music can support that is a great way to share your love. I have to tell you (I'm showing my age here) I learned how to spell encyclopedia from a song on the Mickey Mouse club, and I have a very good friend who made up a song to help her children learn their new address when they moved. I still know that address, because the song is in there!

  3. I agree with you that teaching students how to learn is invaluable to our success. I have said for a long time that students struggle to summarize and note take. They do not possess those skills and we as teachers do not normally teach them those skills. If we want to truly be success these are skills that we need to teach them to be successful after high school.

    1. Kelly, it's so interesting what we teach and what we don't. Some students will develop the skills of summarizing and note taking but many others won't. I think we sometimes teach facts and ignore concepts. Learning to summarize means that we have to teach how to figure out what is crucial and what is extraneous, much higher levels of thinking and more difficult to measure and test. Perhaps that is why those skills are not taught as often, because it can be difficult to know if you are successful.