Virtuous cycles of learning and instruction

What is a virtuous cycle of learning?

Ideal learning occurs in virtuous cycles—repeating cycles of goal settingobservation (taking in new knowledge), testing (applying what has been learned and getting feedback on results), and reflection (figuring out which adjustments are needed to improve one’s performance on the next attempt). This process, which occurs unconsciously from birth, can be made conscious. One recent application of the virtuous cycle is in dynamic steering, in which decisions are developed, applied, and evaluated through intentionally iterating cycles. The idea is to stretch as far as possible within a given cycle, without setting immediate goals that are completely beyond one’s reach. Success emerges from the achievement of a series of incremental goals, each of which brings one closer to the final goal. Processes of this kind lay down foundational skills that support resilience and agility. For example, the infant who learns to walk also learns to fall more gracefully, which makes learning to run much less traumatic than it might have been. And decision makers who use dynamic steering learn a great deal about what makes decisions more likely to be successful, which leads to better, faster decisions in increasingly complex or thorny situations.

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The figure on the right illustrates how educators can support virtuous learning cycles. There are 4 "steps" in this process (not necessarily in the following order):

  1. Find out what individual learners already know and how they work with their knowledge, then set provisional learning goals.
  2. Acquire and evaluate information
  3. Apply new knowledge or skills in hypothetical or real-life situations.
  4. Provide frequent opportunities for learners to reflect upon outcomes associated with the application of new knowledge in an environment in which ongoing learning, application, and reflection are consistently rewarded.

What is a developmental assessment?

A developmental assessment is a test of knowledge and thinking that is based on extensive research into how students come to learn specific concepts and skills over time. All good developmental assessments require test-takers to show their thinking by making written or oral arguments in support of their judgments. Developmental assessments are less concerned about “right” answers and more concerned with how students use their knowledge and thinking skills to solve problems. A good developmental assessment should be educative in the sense that taking it is a learning experience in its own right, and each score is accompanied by feedback that tells students what they are most likely to benefit from learning next.

A good test

babyIn this post, I explore a way of thinking about testing that would lead to the design of tests that are very different from most of the tests students take today.

Two propositions, an observation, and a third proposition:

Proposition 1. Because adults who do not enjoy learning are at a severe disadvantage in a rapidly changing world, an educational system should do everything possible to nurture children's inborn love of learning.

Proposition 2. In K-12, the specific content of a curriculum is not as important as the development of broadly applicable skills for learning, reasoning, communicating, and participating in a civil society. (The content of the curriculum would be chosen to support the development of these skills and could—perhaps should—differ from classroom to classroom.)

Observation. Testing tends to drive instruction.

Proposition 3. Consequently, tests should evaluate relevant skills and be employed in ways that support students' natural love of learning.

Given these propositions, here is my favorite definition of a "good test."

A good test is part of the conversation between a "student" and a "teacher" that tells the teacher what the student is most likely to benefit from learning next.

I'll unpack this definition and show how it relates to the proposals listed above:

Anyone who has carefully observed an infant in pursuit of knowledge will understand the conversational nature of learning. A parent holds out a shiny spoon and an infant's arms wave wildly. Her hand makes contact with the spoon and a message is sent to her brain, "Something interesting happened!" The next day, her arm movements are a little less random. She makes contact several times, feeling the same sense of satisfaction. Her parents laugh with delight. She coos. In this way, her physical and social environment provide immediate feedback each time she succeeds (or fails). Over time, the infant uses this information to learn how to reach out and touch the spoon at will. Of course, she is not satisfied with merely touching the spoon, and, through the same kind of trial and error, supplemented with a little support from Mom and Dad, she soon learns to bring the spoon to her mouth. And the conversation goes on.

Every attempt to touch the spoon is a kind of test. Every success is an affirmation that the strategy just employed was an effective strategy, but the story does not end here. In her quest to master her environment, the infant keeps moving the bar. Once she can do so at will, touching the spoon is no longer satisfying. She moves on to the next skill—holding the spoon, and the next—bringing it to her mouth, etc. Having observed this process hundreds of times, I strongly suspect that a sense of mastery is the intrinsic reward that motivates learning, while conversation, including both social and physical interactions, acts as the fuel.

Conversation

A good educational test should have the same quality of conversation, in the form of performance and feedback, that is illustrated in the example above. In an ideal testing situation, the student shows a teacher how he or she understands new concepts and skills, then the teacher uses this information to determine what comes next.

Part of the conversation

However, a good test is part of the conversation—not the entire conversation. No single test (or kind of conversation) will do. For example, the infant reaches for the spoon because she finds it interesting, and she must be interested enough to reach out many dozens of times before she can grasp an object at will. Good parents recognize that she expresses more sustained interest if they provide her with a number of different objects—and don't try to force her to manipulate objects when she would rather be nursing or sleeping. Each act is a test embedded in a long conversation that is further embedded in a broader context.

What comes next?

In the story, I suggest that the spoon must be both interesting and within an infant's reach before it can become part of an ongoing conversation. In the same way, a good test should both be engaging and within a student's reach in order to play its role in the conversation between student and teacher.

An engaging test of appropriate skills can tell us how a student understands what he or she is learning, but this knowledge, by itself, does not tell the teacher (or the student) what comes next. To find out, researchers must study how particular concepts and skills are learned over time. Only when we have done a good job describing how particular skills and concepts are learned can we predict what a student is most likely to benefit from learning next.

So, a good test must not only capture the nature of a particular student's understanding, it must also be connected to knowledge about  the pathways through which students come to understand the concepts and skills of the knowledge area it targets.

Back to conversation

I argue above, that in infancy, a sense of mastery is the intrinsic reward that motivates learning, while conversation is the fuel. If conversation is the fuel, tests that do a good job serving the conversational function I outline here are likely to fuel students' natural pursuit of mastery and a lifelong love of learning.

Later: But what about accountability?