Students are not Blank Slates

While learning is familiar to all, it has become the subject of serious scientific inquiry in the last several decades. New imaging technologies have provided cognitive scientists a view into the functioning brains and they can see the results of learning as differences in patterns of brain activities. This has led both cognitive and learning scientists to question much that was thought to be true about human leaning, including some of the ideas that were the foundation of the Standard Model of Education.

Previously, educators and scholar presumed learners were “blank slates” when they arrived in classrooms, and teachers began to transfer the necessary information with little concern over what was already there, how they engaged with the material, or how they interpreted what they learned. Once they were assured it was there (by way of test results), teachers were free to begin transferring more information (or to complain “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it). On occasion, teachers tried to have student apply what they had learned to solve problems, but that work was left to the end of the course or term when the necessary information had been transferred.

Our students are not blank slates and their brains are not there to be filled with information. Thinking about problems and how to solve them, even if we understand them incompletely, is a good way to learn. Talking about problems, ideas, and situations with peers is another good way to learn. What educators are coming to realize is that complex problems and social interaction contribute to multiple types of learning and these seemingly inefficient activities result in both the transfer of information that is remembered longer and with greater accuracy and that can be used in unfamiliar situations better than if teachers seek only to transfer the contents of the curriculum.

Cognitive and learning scientists and educators are also beginning to realize the important role the environment plays in human cognition. In the Standard Model of Education, practitioners tend to perceive learning as an independent activity that must be demonstrated by an individual with no assistance (or limited assistance). When students “get help,” they are thought to have “cheated.” The reality is that humans have “downloaded” much of their cognition to the environment throughout our history. Our books contain our memories, pencils and paper allow humans to compute large numbers with precision, and talking with others helps us understand what we should do. When we think together and use tools, we are more powerful thinkers and problem solvers. When we memorize information, we are less powerful thinkers and we are weak problem solvers.