Concept Mastery

In today’s digital world, students read, examine, manipulate and interact on their device.

GUEST COLUMN |by Jim Bowler

CREDIT Adaptive CurriculumAs I travel around the country visiting schools, I observe one noticeable absence in many classrooms―no textbooks. Increasingly, teachers are turning to digital materials to improve learning and meet new standards. Companies are creating revolutionary new ways of teaching and learning that let students read, examine, manipulate, and interact with content right on their device—like a virtual canvas. This is the way students learn in the digital world. These next-generation e-books blend engaging interactions, animations, illustrations, graphs, and questions with standard text to create an interactive, enriching learning experience.

We need to create experiences that stimulate active learning through interaction with content, promoting mastery of key concepts.

As a former educator and current educational software developer, I believe this is a direction that is long overdue in U.S. classrooms. We need to create experiences that stimulate active learning through interaction with content, promoting mastery of key concepts and 21st-century skills. Schools today need to prepare students for lifelong learning, not simply landing a first job. Today’s graduates will hold a number of jobs in the future and may settle into a position that doesn’t even exist today. Focusing on active learning and concept mastery is the best way to meet this challenge.

Many of us think back to our classroom days when rote memorization was a large part of our learning, whether it was geometry proofs or biology classifications. We also know how little we have referenced those long-forgotten facts. Pedagogically, education has rightfully moved beyond memorization of discreet and unrelated items to a more systemic understanding of concepts. Dr. Peter Rillero, Ph.D., an associate professor of science education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU, says that deep conceptual learning methods help students meet today’s more rigorous standards in math and science. “While it’s clear that deep conceptual learning is a desired outcome of the Common Core standards, just asking students to learn deeply isn’t enough,” said Rillero. “Educators need practical, proven methods to help students to make connections between concepts and real-world situations. Deep conceptual learning methods—such as discovery learning, multiple representations, analogies, and challenge-based learning—help students move from simple memorization to deep, meaningful learning.”

What is most exciting is how conceptual learning can be furthered with technology. Interactive activities can simulate real-world scenarios, and students can make hypotheses and then discover whether their hypotheses are correct. Predicting an outcome, observing an action, and analyzing the result cannot be accomplished with a traditional textbook. An interactive eBook can provide such learning. Take, for example, an instructional unit on “Conservation of Mass,” in which students measure the mass of reactants, burn them, and then measure the mass of the gas and residue remaining. Students can predict what the outcome will be, watch the reaction, and then analyze the results. In this case, they find that the mass of the reactants is equal to the mass of the products. Starting with their observations, students are led to the conclusion that mass is conserved in chemical reactions. Not only is the content learned in a deep and memorable way, but learners also develop inquiry skills.

Likewise, challenge-based learning can be supported by innovative technology. As Dr. Peter Rillero observes, “In challenge-based learning, as in problem-based learning, the teacher’s primary role shifts from dispensing information to guiding students’ construction of knowledge around a problem of global importance.” Using technology, a student is presented with a problem, refines the problem, and then develops strategies to arrive at a solution. Students can research questions, investigate the topic using a wide variety of primary source material, and work out a variety of possible solutions using online simulations before identifying the most reasonable one. Solving ecological issues, medical problems, or chemical reactions are just a few of the challenges that can be addressed with simulations in an interactive e-book.

What do teachers say about using technology to support concept mastery and challenge-based learning? In a study by the ASU’s Technology Based Learning Research Center and sponsored by Adaptive Curriculum, teachers listed several benefits:

  •       “They develop thinking skills that go beyond looking answers up out of the book. Those thinking skills can be transferred to all aspects of their lives.”
  •       “They’re not limited by their knowledge in one particular area—they can make connections between disciplines, and they know how to find the information they need to succeed, no matter what they’re trying to accomplish.”
  •       “These students will be better at analyzing information by knowing that there may be more to a problem or situation they encounter.”
  •       “They are better problem solvers; they understand how to learn in a variety of settings; they can answer questions of types they haven’t seen as well as types they have seen.”

For those of us who have been using technology with students for decades, these responses do not surprise us. If anything, they encourage us to speak more boldly about the need to accelerate the transformation from books to interactive learning. Failure to do so is limiting another generation of students charged to our care. As parents, as teachers, as a society, we cannot afford to do that. Providing our children with the most innovative and pedagogically sound learning is a responsibility we all have.

Jim Bowler is CEO of Adaptive Curriculum. Write to:


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