Samson Nashon says that contextual learning and using the principle of metacognition to help develop critical thinking skills are increasingly common approaches to successful teaching and learning.
“We don’t learn in a social vacuum,” says the associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy, “we construct new knowledge based on what we already know and experience. Kids will better understand universal principles if they can relate it to what’s about them.” Critical thinking can be developed based on the principle of metacognition – or thinking about thinking. Self-awareness and self-directed learning techniques are encouraged. “Students are empowered to monitor, acknowledge what works and what doesn’t, and to direct their learning processes so they can succeed,” says Nashon, a former high school math and physics teacher. It’s a principle he now applies in his own classes for future teachers in UBC’s Faculty of Education.
Nashon recently conducted a study with high school children in Western Kenya to assess how contextual learning and metacognition would affect their learning experience. The students reported a clearer understanding of science when concepts were illustrated using the familiar context of the country’s rapidly evolving small-scale manufacturing and technology sector. “Historically, science education was very much about handing the student a package of information. And that information didn’t always translate to a non-western or post-colonial context,” says Nashon. He set the students an assignment to explain the construction and improve the design of charcoal burning stoves, used in most Kenyan households. “They get to unravel the science embedded in their experience and draw on science to ask questions that could advance the design,” he says.
And the approach can be a lot more fun than rote learning. A few years ago, Nashon and professor of education David Andersen worked with BC high school teachers on new physics curriculum. An annual contest emerged, BC’s Brightest Minds, where physics students compete to solve physics posers involving Playland rides at the PNE such as the Hellevator, which shoots riders about 200 feet straight upwards at 75 kilometres an hour, before releasing them into freefall. (Fun for some, anyway.)