Kirsti Lonka, University of Helsinki, Professor of Educational Psychology (@kirstilonka) gave the opening keynote at last week’s IFLA Satelllite meeting on Information Literacy, at Tampere University, Finland, entitled ‘Engaging learning environments for the future.’ There are now some photos from the conference online. Kirsti told us how teachers in higher education might actually be able change society with their thinking, but they don’t always recognise this. Kirsti talked about how we need to adapt new ways of collective learning for better results and to consider the emotions we experience while we are learning. This theme of ‘emotional intellgience’ came up a number of times at the conference, and chimed with my work on ANCIL and the affective dimension of learning.
Kirsti has moved from medical to teacher education and believes it is inspiring to work with future teachers. Teachers have a great impact on society. She started by asking what it means to teach the ‘digital natives’? Even if you are skeptical about the notion of digital natives, it is still worth considering how information behaviour has changed, particularly when people are growing up with constant access to the internet and technologies. She spoke of sociocultural ideas of the human mind, how learning always takes place in a context (ideas of Biggs, Lave and Wenger etc.) And Vygotsky’s belief that context relies of culturally and historically developed structures. Recent brain research suggests we are biologically cultural creatures and that culture actually affects our brains. For example a person’s brain changes from driving a London taxi for a long time. Unfortunately 90% of lay people think learning is taking knowledge, storing it, spreading it on the exam paper and then forgetting it. The goals are defined in quantitative terms – 60%, 70% (but of what?) Lonka asked us to consider how does being passive while learning shape our minds?
Modern theories of learning see the learner as central to the creation of meaning and recognise that learning should be an active process. But do these ideas really apply in teaching in Higher Education when academics are largely still teaching as they did in the 1970s? Kirsti went on to talk about the importance of learning spaces and how the physical environment regulates our mode of learning – lecture theatres makes the teacher the only active person. She questioned the value of traditional learning spaces if we really want learners to have what Scardamalia calls ‘epistemic agency’. This is the notion that students themselves deal with problems of goals, evaluation and long range planning that are normally left to teachers and they engage in personally meaningful study projects.
Kirsti went on to consider what happens when students go into the workplace and what skills are important here. We all know our working days are rarely carefully planned – we often need to adapt and react to things are they happen. Therefore self regulated learning is essential in working life. But if we teach students to be passive when learning then are we really helping them prepare for lifelong learning?
Kirsti went on to talk about how technology is part of younger generations normal social practices. However the modern classroom is not designed to have technology in it. So the challenge is how to create a blended learning environment where the online and physical space are not separate.
Lonka looked at how you activate students and engage them in learning and has developed several models with colleagues to diagnose and activitate interest. She believes interest is key to learning as it is almost impossible to teach someone who believes they know everything amd has no interest in learning. But what is interest? In her ideas interest is a psychological state and there is always a target and a relationship between the person and surrounding context. Prior knowledge is related to interest. She also explained how its very difficult to be interested in something you know nothing about. She gave a personal experience of her lack of interest in sport, which has been developed as she learnt more about it from her family.
You need to trigger interest but then maintain it to get a hold. Emerging interest, then can eventually become well developed. But what sort of teaching promotes interest? Lonka explained how if teachers control the learning too much, students’ lose agency and their emotions are less positive. Cognitive automony does not mean students doing exactly what they want. Their prior knowledge and understanding are activated and the aims are transparent. But some would say students want it easy – so lets just spoonfeed them. In fact learning needs to involve an element of challenge and struggle to be engaging and to get what Lonka calls ‘flow’. You need a certain level of challenge and competence to get flow – if you know too much then you can be bored. If its too challenging then you get anxious. However, students have to understand that some anxiety is good when learning– need to keep the challenge high, but teachers need to scaffold the process.
Lonka concludes that in lectures students rarely get to the optimal learning experience and in fact this often happens in small groups and in the library. Academic emotions but especially interest actually can predict cognitive academic outcomes – so we need to understand the interplay between emotions and ability.
I was excited to hear that the team in Helsinki are about to start some research on digital natives’ brains. She argues that the knowledge practices of digital natives are different, the multi-tasking, the use of devices, reading from the screen etc. She also told us about the Kaisa library in Helsinki and the new space constructed in the teacher education library called the engaging learning environment (ELE). I found a short article in the University of Helsinki newsletter about this development. They have developed an application called Flinga so students can throw their ideas onto the screen and Lonka designed a console for the teacher. Finally Kirsti concluded that libraries support a range of activities and they can provide a unique learning experience to students as well as allowing a new level of social interaction, so they are at the heart of learning. I will blog more about the conference soon.