Using your discipline as a framework for learning engages students and enables them to develop practical and cognitive skills integral to your field. To provide a disciplinary context for learning, first identify concepts, perspectives and problem-solving skills necessary for success in the field. Because these may be skills and thought processes that you’ve long since internalized, you may find it useful to observe the approach beginning students take toward material and compare it to your own expert approach to identify the skills new students lack. Next, develop lessons and assignments that engage students in the practice of the discipline. Finally, plan assessments to measure students’ thinking processes and approaches to problem-solving within the field, as opposed to focusing on course content alone.
For additional information, please see Paul Atchley's perspective on cognitive apprenticeship.
Additional considerations when planning your course:
- Model the ways scholars work by posing questions at the beginning of lecture, allowing students to pose possible answers, then using lecture material to discriminate among correct and incorrect answers.
- Challenge students to apply the ways of thinking you are teaching to other aspects of their lives; this will close the gap between students’ lived experience and academic disciplines.
- Pay attention to learning as a developmental process as you plan lessons. What differences exist between the kinds of thinking we might expect of students who are just beginning study in your discipline versus those who are ready to graduate?
- Design your course to help students think in their disciplines, but also challenge them to question those ways of thinking.
Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) explain that knowledge of any kind can never be separated from the activity in which it is deployed, and, as such, learning is always situated within authentic activity (activities that are the ordinary practices of a culture). Classroom instruction, then, should be a process of enculteration, by which students learn the tools they need for a certain activity within a context that allows them to see how members of that community—that is, scholars in the field—use those tools. Learning in the classroom should not be the imparting of abstract concepts devoid of context from the instructor to the students, who then apply those concepts to artificially created situations. Rather, learning should always be situated, so that students can use the environment, the context and knowledge they already have to solve problems and make generalizations.
Group learning is particularly important for any sort of situated learning, as group work is necessary for enculteration to take place. In fact, most work outside of school takes place collaboratively, not in the isolated situations often created within the classroom setting. Students benefit from group work by finding multiple solutions to problems, discovering the many roles needed to solve certain problems, and confronting ineffective strategies and misconceptions (See Using Group Work).
Thinking like a historian
Lendol Calder, a professor at Augustana College, redesigned his U.S. history survey course to move away from the traditional textbook and lecture format to a format that asks students to think like historians. Calder spends three class meetings on each topic in his course. Each meeting is devoted to a different type of historical thinking: visual inquiry, critical inquiry, and moral inquiry (Calder 2006).
On Day 1, Calder uses a film, usually a documentary, to teach students about how to examine images with an awareness of how those images can be manipulated. The questions that students begin to ask during the film discussion prepare them for the following meeting.
On Day 2, students bring to class a three- to five-page essay based on their own questions about primary documents they have read. At the beginning of class, they exchange papers with their classmates while Calder organizes the questions that framed their papers, which they give to him on notecards. Then, the class discusses the questions the students have brought in and Calder introduces a new intellectual skill that historians make so that students can begin talking about history the way historians do.
On Day 3, students take a short quiz over readings from two textbooks. Calder then lectures over the interpretive questions he wants to consider, though he admits that students are “so primed with questions and historical arguments of their own that sometimes it is impossible to talk uninterrupted for long.”
Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.
Calder, Lendol. (2006). Uncoverage: Toward a signature pedagogy for the history survey. The Journal of American History, 92 (4), 1358-70.