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Partners in learning

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue May, May 1 - May 31 2000 | BY Marcia C. Linn 


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This article is one in a new Ubiquity series devoted to the personal recollections of individuals who have played significant roles in information technology or in related fields of science and technology.

As I began the research leading to Computers, Teachers, Peers-Science Learning Partners (Linn & Hsi, 2000), I was influenced by earlier experiences in researching programming instruction, student learning, and curriculum change. I became a lifelong science learner primarily, I think, because of my family. I worked with Jean Piaget in Geneva and gained a perspective on student learning that resonated with my own experience as a lifelong science learner. I worked closely with Bob Karplus at the Lawrence Hall of Science and saw how creative new ideas for the curriculum could become part of an exciting science program that changed students' views of science and imparted deep understanding. I studied the first efforts to teach computer science in pre-college courses and developed research methods and hopes for technology that spurred my thinking. These ideas were relatively strange in 1984, but they became the basis for a 15-year investigation of the Computer as Learning Partner.

My lifelong interest in science learning certainly stems from growing up as the oldest child in a family enthusiastic about learning. My father, George Cyrog, believed everyone could learn about all aspects of science and engineering and implemented this in his hobby of collecting rocks and minerals. My mother, Frances Cyrog, developed a philosophy for individualized reading instruction starting when she taught elementary school and continuing as she became the principal of a local elementary school.

My father communicated his enthusiasm for collecting rocks and minerals, for prospecting in the Southwestern desert to locate new sources of petrified wood or green agate, for turning the materials we collected into cabochons, and, eventually, for making jewelry.

Our family made regular trips to the deserts in the western United States to collect rocks and minerals and to prospect for new locations. I walked with my father up dry streams looking for evidence of agate, or gold (I always hoped), or petrified wood, or obsidian. I frequently read these signs correctly and located rocks I wanted to collect (including "fools gold"). Fortunately, my father willingly collected materials that I thought were interesting. Even today, his house and garage are filled with collected materials he plans to cut or polish. I learned to cut some of the stones I collected and make them into cabochons or paperweights. Along the way I learned to repair things that broke, to understand how machines work, and to nurture plants in the garden. These experiences convinced me that I could learn new scientific material "just in time."

My mother shaped my beliefs about learning and instruction. She enthusiastically enacted books for me from the time I could understand any word. Even in high school when I was sick, she often sat by my bed and reread some favorite Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel. She enthusiastically described the advantages of having students select their own books, and she carefully worked out the supports they needed to help them select books that they could understand and to help them interpret vocabulary that they did not immediately recognize.

I was fortunate to have such wonderful "learning partners." My father was a great guide and tutor, believing I could learn anything and encouraging me to explore rather than telling me the answers. He ensured that I had the tools necessary to explore rocks and minerals and prospect in dry streams, including pickaxes, collecting bags, and maps. My mother inspired a love of books and a disposition to reflect on what I read and what I experienced. Later in life, my own children, Matthew and Allison, taught me that learners follow very different paths in their quest for knowledge.

In retrospect, I interpret my experiences learning about minerals, fixing broken machines, and helping children learn to read as a firm foundation that has allowed me to build new understandings in diverse fields. These experiences have also convinced me that students can learn new, complex ideas if they are relevant to their lives and if they have appropriate support and tutoring along the way.

Piagetian Influences

In 1967-68, I was fortunate to work with Jean Piaget and other researchers at the Institute Jean Jacques Rousseau in Geneva, Switzerland. I spent considerable amounts of time in schools interviewing students and learning to conduct interviews using the Piagetian clinical method. These interviews, and many subsequent ones that I conducted in my own research between 1967 and 1984, formed the basis for my perspective on knowledge integration. In Geneva, listening to researchers probe students' ideas motivated me to listen closely to the ideas that students bring to a learning situation. I learned that their ideas about scientific topics are diverse and often well connected.

Based on his research, Piaget concluded that students form a well integrated, robust understanding from a concrete perspective before they move on to a more abstract or formal perspective. Piaget sought to show that this was a universal phenomenon and even suggested that it was likely to occur at a particular age.

My own research involved interviewing large numbers of students about a much more diverse set of questions, including many more naturally occurring and personally relevant problems than were used in Piagetian research. I noticed that students seemed to develop connections in much narrower contexts than those suggested by Piaget. They might have four or five views of a topic such as light, each connected to a different context, like dark glasses, lighted theaters, or telescopes. I saw the value of the connections the students achieved, but I recognized the need to help them better combine and organize these diverse ideas. For example, students often come to class with a repertoire of ideas about heat and temperature. They may believe that, since metal feels cold to the touch compared to wood, metal is far better at keeping objects cold, because it can impart cold. Depending on the instructional approach, this idea might be built upon or ridiculed. Instruction could help the student distinguish between how something feels ("It feels cold.") and how something insulates ("Does it keep it cold?")

My approach to extending the perspective of Piaget is to help students develop stronger, more coherent ideas by building upon and distinguishing among diverse ideas. Other researchers, also starting with Piaget, have sought to identify taxonomy of student misconceptions, such as the belief that metals keep things cold. Some of these researchers seek to eradicate such ideas from the student's repertoire of ideas. My research observations and discussions with students support the perspective that a more successful plan is to build on students' ideas and to encourage them to expand upon these ideas so that they develop broader, more coherent accounts of situations. In this way, instructors promote predictive and useful ideas.

A common intuitive view of instructional design is that one identifies the material to be learned and pours it into the student, tells it to the student, or otherwise inoculates the student with it, via a textbook or a lecture. Providing information this way will often fail, because students can't connect it to their own ideas or lack the opportunity to reflect and reorganize their ideas to incorporate the new material.

Interviews with students in Geneva and here in the U.S. have convinced me that it is advantageous to encourage students to explore many different ideas about any given topic, while helping them combine and restructure these ideas so that they can form a coherent and comprehensive perspective on the problem. Supporting this process of making conjectures, gaining new information, and reorganizing ideas is the goal of the Computer as Learning Partner project.

Influence of Bob Karplus at the Lawrence Hall of Science

From 1970 through the mid-'80s, working at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science with Bob Karplus, a physicist interested in elementary science instruction, I observed first-hand how one could design curriculum materials that support the process of restructuring students' knowledge by building on their ideas.

Karplus had developed the Science Curriculum Improvement Study over a ten-year period at the Lawrence Hall of Science. By the time I came to the Lawrence Hall of Science, the final trials and refinements were underway. I worked to adapt the materials for special student populations, including deaf and blind students, and to design classroom assessment materials that would help teachers pay attention to the ideas held by students.

Karplus had a well-established procedure for creating and refining curricular materials. The group brainstormed ideas, after which project members who were former classroom teachers tried out these ideas in a variety of situations. Students were interviewed to determine their reactions and their understanding of the materials presented. Then the group met again to discuss how successful the materials had been and to devise improvements that would address the ideas expressed by the students. The revised materials were then tested more broadly and put in final form.

While Science Curriculum Improvement Study activities were used in a large number of schools, a combination of costs and logistics reduced their use over time. A commercial version of the Science Curriculum Improvement Study encountered difficulties, not because the students failed to learn science but because the logistics of teaching science using complex materials in elementary schools across the United States proved to be extremely difficult. Nonetheless, many of the creative activities from the Science Curriculum Improvement Study have been refined, revised, and included in more recent programs, and the process of activity design that Karplus pioneered has been adopted by many other projects. Indeed, Karplus' approach to curriculum development and refinement has inspired our design for the Computer as Learning Partner curriculum.

Programming Research Influences

In 1983, just prior to starting the Computer as Learning Partner project, I was wrapping up a grant from the National Institute of Education to examine the cognitive consequences of using instructional technology that focused primarily on computer programming instruction. I had concluded that current models and practices were unlikely to take advantage of the power of this new tool.

To carry out the programming research, I had established partnerships involving computer scientists, cognitive researchers, undergraduate and pre-college programming instructors, and undergraduate and pre-college programming students. Everyone was a novice at teaching programming at the time, and those involved were desperate for better solutions. The benefits of these partnerships were already apparent. One stunning finding, for example, was that some pre-college programming teachers had designed innovative techniques that could improve college teaching and that some college programming instructors had implemented extremely creative ideas that both pre-college and college instructors could use to improve their courses. As a model, the partnership approach to curriculum development seemed extremely promising.

As part of the programming research I also looked at science curriculum materials, especially those for middle school students, and I was struck by their similarity to the college texts I had encountered in my student days, by their complexity, and by their difficulty. In fact, I found it quite difficult to understand the sections on heat and temperature in middle school texts. I wondered how many teachers or students, not to mention research scientists, would have trouble with this material. I wanted to create a curriculum that was accessible to a broader range of students. Based on my programming research experience, I knew I would need to assemble a group of individuals, each of whom would contribute something important to this effort. Clearly, I would need natural scientists and classroom teachers. My interest in computer technology motivated me to look for relevant technology. We would need to work with students and to understand their ideas clearly, so that we wouldn't be lulled into complacency by our own growing expertise in the topics we wanted to teach.

This article was adapted from the "About the Authors" section of Computers, Teachers, Peers -- Science Learning Partners (available at: by Marcia C. Linn and Sherry Hsi, both of the Graduate School of Education, University of California. It has been adapted for Ubiquity through the courtesy of the publishers, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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