Learners and Learning: A Diverse and Evolving Process

Evolution illustration
Illustration for Ideas story on representations of evolution. Rudolph Franz Zallinger, “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” in F. Clark Howell, Early Man (Time-Life Books, 1965).
Contemporary phylogenetic tree for homo sapiens from the University of California Berkeley

The Learner

One thing that most people don’t know about me is that I enjoy learning about evolutionary biology, particularly human evolutionary biology. The first chart above here represents what most people think about human evolution, a chronological “progression” of evolution from what is considered the most basic primate to modern day humans (who would be considered the pinnacle of advancement in the image). However, this dated image gets evolutionary biology wrong. The second image more accurately depicts evolution, one where every extant primate species is a cousin of the others and are as evolved as the rest. Meaning that modern chimpanzees and humans not only continue to exist and are cousins, but that they also occupy the same evolutionary distance from our common ancestor.

I thought about the dueling interpretations of these two images while completing my reading of Larson and Keiper’s fourth chapter which focused on the Learner. Learning, on the face of it might seem to be an easy concept, like the conception of evolution presented in the illustration from 1965; instead, the picture of learning is much more complex, like the phylogenetic tree. First, all learners are not all the same and our students are constantly evolving. Biologically, adolescent learners develop at different rates. Girls and boys tend to develop at different rates and individuals with the same sex also develop at different rates from each other. Psychologically students may develop slower or faster than their bodies. Particular to a classroom environment, some students may be “intellectually capable” but still be “unpracticed in higher cognitive thinking” (Larson and Keiper, 90). Finally, adolescents also develop and figure out parts of their identity and are highly aware of their appearance and concerned about their behavior. Our students then, are constantly evolving, adapting to different changes or contexts. Treating all students as the same is illogical when this constant process of evolution is happening.

Second, our students are diverse. They bring to our classrooms a broad range of experiences, backgrounds, beliefs, and interests. Our students will also come to our classrooms with differing abilities, some may be learners with special needs while other may be high performing. To effectively teach all of our students we as teachers will have to differentiate instruction, we should vary our instruction and adjust our lessons/instruction according to the needs and interests of the students rather than requiring students to fit to the curriculum (Larson and Kepier, 96). Closely connected to diversity in the classroom is the idea of multicultural education, the aim of which is to “create equal educational opportunities for students from diverse racial, ethnic, social-class, and cultural groups” (Larson and Keiper, 97). In sum, multicultural education is concerned with increasing equity in the classroom. This effectively moves the experiences and stories of our diverse students into the curriculum and into the classroom.

In all, the main thing I took away from the Larson and Keiper reading was that, our students and our classrooms will constantly evolve and will be as diverse as our evolutionary family. Humans are not alone in our evolutionary tree. We occupy the same branch as our primate cousins and all of us are constantly evolving, evolution is a process that does not stop and has no real end-points or goals. We cannot continue to think of our classrooms and education in the same dated ways as before, we must change our thinking to fit with reality and to adjust to the needs of our students.

Learning: The C3 Standards

Let’s go back to the two images at the top. What image presents a more rich picture of human evolution? Many of you probably picked the second image as the one that gave you a more rich and complex understanding of human evolution. Instead of a progression, the second image depicts us on a tree, highlighting our evolutionary cousins, our common ancestors we shared with them, and our adaptations along the way. (Special note, we did not evolve from chimpanzees, we both evolved from a common ancestor).

I think of the C3 Framework in the same way as I see the second image, the Framework helps me, and students, have a more rich and complex understanding of history and the social sciences. Part of the way the C3 Framework does this is by focusing on skills. When the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) were revised last year they identified the learning of historical, geographical, and civic skills as a key components of social studies education. Skills included here were primary source analysis, the ability to develop perspectives, the ability to ask questions, evaluate significance, etc. (VUS.1a-i). The C3 Framework is well suited for these goals.

The C3 Framework puts emphasis on inquiry and the application of knowledge in the classroom. C3 combines compelling questions, acquisition and interpretation of evidence, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication into one framework. This is most clearly demonstrated by the Instructional Design Model (IDM) or the History and Social Science Inquiries on the Virginia C3 hub. I have made IDMs before, and the thing I like the most about them, is that they transform students into their own historians/social scientists and allows them to engage directly with the content at a very personal level. Students engage with sources individually, in groups, and collectively. The Framework also asks teachers to think deeply about the purpose and goals of the lesson and to purposefully create formative performance tasks which ask students to apply the knowledge gained from the inquiry. The Framework also has many elements of backward design as planning an inquiry starts with a question, then teachers connect that question with the goals of the lesson, the standards to which the inquiry connects, and then a plan of assessments, sources, and tasks.

To me, the C3 Framework is one that can help me to give my students a rich and complex understanding of historical subjects, but it can also help me equip students with skills and dispositions that will help them as adults and as citizens. Instead of teaching social studies as my parents and myself were taught (something that is more similar to the first image of evolution where students start out knowing nothing and through memorization and lecture reach the end goal), we should strive to teach in a way that allows our students to engage with rich and complex topics.

One thought on “Learners and Learning: A Diverse and Evolving Process”

  1. I know a lot of people have problems with the Time-Life progression, but – I think we ought to give ’em a break; that was the best they could do, at the time – and they were on the right track, if a bit off.
    I like your theme, “The Learner”. You’re probably, ‘a man after my own heart’ (I’ve never cared for that saying but, you know what I mean).
    I’m new to WordPress. I’m trying to set up my page, right now, and the further I get, the more I realize – just how far behind I am in the ‘Digital World’. You’d never know I had one of the very first computer systems on Cape Cod (Commodore VIC-20, back in 1982!)
    I’ll have to check your site out more thoroughly some time!


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