Online Learning as Academic Support for an Experiential Montessori Wilderness Program
How can an online learning structure be used as an academic support for a Montessori-style middle school nature based program? Is an online supplementary learning structure appropriate for students who spend most of their learning hours interacting face-to-face and with hands-on-learning?
This paper will discuss the pros and cons of integrating an online homestudy program for students as an alternative to the traditional pen and paper, teacher-led academic model.
Maria Montessori Philosophical Background
Montessori philosophy has always held to the tenets that learning best takes place in an atmosphere of a student-centered, multi-disciplinary, hands-on environment where the student is expected to be an active, self-directed learner.
The mission of the philosophy is to provide opportunities for adolescents to be self-confident and gain self-knowledge, to belong to a community, to learn to be adaptable, to be academically competent and challenged, and to create a vision for their personal future.
In the spirit of Montessori philosophy, the theory of looking to developmental stages as a guide is crucial. The notion of respecting people for where they are in their development and utilizing their unique developmental stage in order to support the unfolding process of growth is a basic foundation of Montessori educational design. The biological, cognitive, and psychosocial development and its implications for the learning environment is important.
Six strategies are incorporated into the curriculum in order to foster empowerment. These are: enhancing personal growth and self-knowledge, developing communication skills and self-expression, creating a community, learning how to learn and engaging in meaningful and challenging work (Lillard, 2005).
History of the Modern School System
Maria Montessori, who developed her model as a reaction to the traditional model of teacher-centered learning and student as programmable subjects (akin to the factory model that was popular after the industrial revolution), proposed a system she called ‘planes of development’ that correspond loosely to Piaget’s developmental stages ( King et al, n.d.). The ‘planes of development’ also incorporate what she called ‘sensitive periods’ similar to how Noam Chomsky describes the potential of the ‘innate’ capacity of the brain in terms of language acquisition, sometimes referred to as a LAD or language acquisition device (King et al, n.d.).
Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy (1956) condensed Piaget’s working model into a blueprint for educators, tracing a developmental timeline of cognitive development that is useful in demonstrating the difference within a continuum of the cognitive aspects of brain development (King et al, n.d.).
According to Bloom, the more basic abilities of ‘remembering, understanding and applying’ fit well with the capacity of children under 12 yrs old in terms of how they learn, without differentiating between different learning styles (i.e. lecture based vs hands-on, or linguistic vs kinestetic). The higher order executive functions of analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating begin developing during adolescence, however, which makes the basic process of taking in information and simply regurgitating or applying it become a painful task, where a more creative, self-organizing, system of study would be more useful. This is the main reason why adolescents seem to rebel from the standard form of education, and seem to a large extent, unmanageable in the traditional classroom (King et al, n.d.).
Schools were created primarily for pre-adolescents (up to age 11), and universities were created for adults. With the extension of the public school system in the 1940s with the creation of child labour laws and as a way to keep adolescents out of the work force (White and Swartzwelder, 2013), basic learning skills were mostly extended upward- with a teacher-centered model that continued to view the student as a blank slate, or as Maria Montessori would refer to the mind of the pre-adolescent; the absorbent mind (Lillard, 2005).
Pedagogy vs Andragogy (Child vs Adult Learning)
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, has recently allowed scientists to learn an incredible amount about the functioning of the human brain within the past 5 years. The executive functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain begins to develop at adolescence and is as fully formed by about age 25 (White and Swartzwelder, 2013). Based on this development, it is assumed that by the time we have become adults, we learn differently from children. But according to various studies, although the brain functioning has matured, the capacity to utilize these new functions has not fully been developed. This is partly due to the fact that the traditional school experience helps to construct ‘dependent’ learners and it is up to the educator to move students from their old habits, shape them into self-directed learners, and encourage them to start taking responsibility for their learning (Cercone, 2012).
Recommendations for creating active learners out of passive learners includes involving the participants directly in the learning process and to be facilitators of this process, relating learning to changing social roles and relevancy to real life. Self-reflection, which is part of metacognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ is also important as is the element of experiential learning.
Characteristics of self-directed learners include independence, willingness to take initiative, persistence in learning, self-discipline, self-confidence, and the desire to learn more. They are able to organize time, develop plans for completion, enjoy learning and remain goal-oriented.
Self-directed learning underlies the definition of andragogy. The theory of andragogy acknowledges that as a person grows and matures, his or her self-concept changes from that of a dependent personality toward that of a self-directed individual. Older methods of teaching did not foster self-directed learning and were primarily teacher-centered and passive.
These methods of education can be difficult habits to break later on in life. Students must therefore be guided in adolescence to progress toward self-direction and to take more responsibility for their own learning.
Costa and Kallick (2007) developed the Sixteen Habits of Mind in order to assist adolescents make the transition from basic cognitive function to adult cognition in terms of transitioning from passive to active learning, or dependent to independent learning.
These ‘habits’ are: 1) persistence 2) managing impulsivity 3) listening with understanding and empathy 4) thinking flexibly 5) thinking about thinking 6) striving for accuracy 7) questioning and problem-posing 8) applying past knowledge to new situations 9) thinking and communicating with clarity and precision 10) gathering data though all senses 11) creating, imagining and innovating 12) responding with wonderment and awe 13) taking responsible risks 14) finding humour 15) thinking independently and 16) remaining open to continuous learning.
Other important underpinnings of adult cognition include those related to changing social roles, relevancy to real life and experiential learning. There is an especially great need for peer interaction for adolescents. Therefore, relevance of the material presented, experiential hands-on-learning, and peer interaction are all major components of effective learning as adolescents make the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Relevant Research on the Pros and Cons of Online Learning
Based on the premise that “Good instructional design is driven by our knowledge of human cognitive structures and the manner in which those structures are organized . . .” (Sweller, 2005, p. 19 from Greer, 2008), Mayer and colleagues (Moreno & Mayer, 2002) developed an evidence base for the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML). The premise is that “Multimedia learning has its roots in the cognitive architecture that allows human learning to take place and the technological features that best support cognition” (Greer, 2008).
CTML proports that the construction of new knowledge comes from receiving information via two channels, auditory and visual, which the human mind organizes and integrates with each other and with prior knowledge retrieved from long-term memory (Greer, 2008). CTML is therefore particularly relevant to computer-based and online learning environments where auditory and numerous forms of visual stimuli (e.g., text, diagram, photo) are easily used and integrated into a curriculum.
In various studies, instructional design principles from CTML have been validated with typically developing students using paper-based texts and diagrams, and oral or recorded audio presentations (Greer, 2008). The capacity of online technologies however, far out source traditional technologies in terms of variety and sensory stimulation.
The Importance of Social Interactions
An important component of classroom learning is the social and communicative interactions between student and teacher, and student and student. A student’s ability to ask a question, to share an opinion, or to disagree with a point of view are fundamental learning activities. It is often through conversation, discourse, discussion, and debate among students and between instructors and students that a new concept is clarified, an old assumption is challenged, a skill is practiced, an original idea is formed and encouraged, and ultimately, a learning objective is achieved.
Online learning requires adjustments by instructors as well as students for successful interactions to occur. Online courses often substitute classroom interaction with discussion boards, synchronous chat, electronic bulletin boards, and e-mail.
Some scholars suggest that interaction in an online environment promotes student-centered learning, encourages wider student participation, and produces more in-depth and reasoned discussions than a traditional classroom setting does. Interaction in an online environment is less intimidating between individuals and also has less time pressure on students than does interaction in a face-to-face setting. Online discussions also can encourage more reticent students to participate to a greater extent .
The advantage of online interaction, however, may not be realized if close connection among the learners is absent. Students who failed to make online connections with other learners in their group reported feeling isolated and more stressed (Ya Ni, 2002).
Middle-school Curriculum: Reading and Writing skills
For the most part, research is beginning to show a positive correlation between composing on computers and writing quality, quantity and motivation to write. With the expectation that facilitation of the manual writing process would lead to more and better writing, a large body of research has focused on the number of words produced, students’ motivation to write, and the assessed quality of the writing when examining the use of computers to teach writing.
Researchers observe that word processing is less painful and laborious than handwriting, that editing is easier because printed misspellings are more readily identifiable than handwritten ones; and that revision does not involve tedious recopying (Peterson and McClay, 2013).
In general, blogging is more interesting than writing, as it is writing for an audience. Not just the fact of increasing literacy skills, but ‘creating a page’ and learning how to upload photos and videos as well as edit and crop photos makes a blog more versatile as a project. Manual text and artwork can also be included. New ways of creating, distributing and exchanging texts have become possible through digital technology. Research skills and computer proficiency are also becoming more and more of an asset for continuing on in higher education.
Middle-school Curriculum: Math
Math works best as a one-on-one activity with a one-on-one tutor. Both from personal experience and from the personal testimony of many of my students, traditional classrooms that attempt to target a wide range of students often falls short both from the high and low end of the classroom, resulting in the higher end students becoming bored and the low end students feeling lost.
Math is a subject that is mostly taught in an abstract format with no other learning styles accounted for. All adolescents are in the process of developing a keen capacity for deduction, and a lot of students who ‘don’t get’ math, are excellent 3D problem solvers and exhibit keen deductive powers in other areas. Obviously, the problem lies in the standardized presentation of the subject content.
Through my research, I have found several online math programs that effectively teach math concepts through more than one modality. A good program will test for comprehension after each concept, and finding that the student doesn’t understand the concept, will re-explain in a different modality including interactive games, storyboard, etc. With online programs, there is also the added benefit of replaying explanations and getting immediate feedback.
Math online programs are some of the most successful innovations in the academic technology advancements. Tutoring through math online programs are fast replacing face-to-face tutors. Some of the resources I have found are Kahn Academy (khanacademy.com), Virtual Nerd (vertualnerd.com), and a math, chemistry, physics and biology program: http://htwinds.net/scale2/
Teaching physical sciences through online programs that include video can be much more effective in teaching concepts that are usually taught in a purely abstract way, such as physics, chemistry and biology. The Newtonian view of a ‘clockwork universe’ has been long supplanted by Einstein view of the universe and more recent discoveries in Quantum physics, however, the more simplistic model is still taught in middle and highschools because it is basically easier to teach in standardized form.
Cons of an Online Homestudy Program
There are a lot of studies that argue for limited time focused on a computer screen, and with good reason. The well-known addictive potential of online gaming as well as facebook and other social media is only part of the whole picture of how technology can impact brain function and development.
Recent brain research shows that too much technology during the teen years (the average teen uses technology for 7 hours a day) can change the structure of the brain by decreasing the size of the hippocampus, and creating grey matter abnormalities in the pre-frontal cortex. Also, the fact that the brain receives pleasure from the dopamine response from technology, makes it difficult to resist buzzes, vibes and rings and ultimately decreases contemplative ability (White and Swartzwelder, 2013).
As a result, many parents embrace the use of gathering information via the internet but remain concerned about the impact of internet use. There are certain skills that need to be taught and practiced, mainly self-discipline and impulse control. Separating homestudy time from personal time is a first important step. A first recommendation to parents would be to make sure that a home computer is in a central location, such as the kitchen or living room and to set aside separate time for homestudy projects that do not interfere with personal computer time.
I believe that a blended approach is more conducive to active learning than a traditional teacher-centered model would otherwise be. Even in a hands-on experiential learning environment, the acquisition of academic knowledge is more easily assimilated when the adolescent actively seeks out the information for themselves.
A well-balanced homestudy program should contain material that complemented experiential learning in the face-to-face environment. Less teacher-led activities would leave more time for peer interaction during program time and online tutorials would allow a student-centered approach to gathering information. Online materials that contain multimedia content such as video or interactive activities that are visually stimulating as well as the ability to stop and start lessons or to replay parts multiple times can only be better than a class-led demonstration in terms of active engagement and content comprehension.
Teaching students how to manage an online program in order to access research information as well as learning techniques to enhance internet research is a valuable tool in our modern society. The creation of active learners who utilize all of the brain’s potential in executive functioning is what we should be striving for as educators.
Less distraction from other students also creates an opportunity for more focused and contemplative time. With the addition of being able to choose to work at a preferred time and at a preferred pace (considering that adolescents have a limited ability to focus), quality undistracted focused time becomes the goal of online learning. With the understanding that they still have the opportunity to get together with peers in a group-work environment, and have the opportunity for face-to-face tutorials with mentors on a weekly basis, the benefits of a homestudy program, in contrast to the traditional teacher-led program, in my opinion, is far superior.
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