Dr Brian Cambourne says there are eight conditions for learning in the classroom that will lead to improved outcomes with students.
Engagement, immersion, demonstration, response, approximation, use and employment, responsibility, and expectations – these are the Conditions for Learning developed by Dr Brian Cambourne, one of Australia’s most eminent researchers of literacy and learning.
On Episode 75 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy, Brian joined literacy expert Sharon Callen to discuss how these conditions will set up a rich, vibrant classroom environment where students are fully engaged.
Condition for learning: Engagement
Brian described engagement as a mix of motivation, attendance and attention, which is best achieved when students are able to make meaning and understand why something is important for them to learn as a reader or writer.
“Most of the language that teachers who understand this use in the classroom is language that tries to get the kids to, instead of talking about learning or teaching, use the concept of making meaning. So I would hear them saying things like, now our next lesson is biology, and we’re going to make some meanings about the biological concepts in this topic we’re studying,” Brian said.
“And so I would try to get the kids to put a moratorium on using words like ‘learn’ or ‘teach’, and replace it instead with ‘making meaning’. And after a while, I noticed the kids started to do this. I would ask them, what are you doing now? And they would say, we’re making meaning about whatever biological or mathematical topic they were studying.
“So, I would advise that it’s really effective if you can authentically help your kids understand what meaning making is all about, and how good learners think about learning as a process of making meaning, rather than a process of memorisation and regurgitation, which is what behaviourism is.”
The system of ‘making meaning’
Brian explained that making meaning is a constant cycle of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction within the opportunities that teachers create for students.
“When you talk about kids making meaning, you are informing them that you really believe that they are capable of constructing their own meaning. And they’ll get support from other class members and from other adults who understand this. They’ll get supportive comments that will draw their attention back to whatever it is you’re demonstrating and explore other aspects of it,” he explained.
“So it’s a kind of system where kids construct meanings, share them with others, and as a consequence of what they hear about the meanings that others have made, they deconstruct their own responses and then reconstruct them.”
Condition for learning: Approximation
When learning to talk and build vocabulary, students may not at first always produce a fully articulated or grammatically correct response. However, by responding to the intention behind their words, it still acknowledges it as true and meaningful communication.
“I heard a conversation between a parent and a toddler where the mum was cleaning, and the little toddler picked up one of his father’s socks, and he showed it to his mother and said, ‘da-da’s sock’. Now if you think about it, that’s really poor grammar, and he couldn’t pronounce the word properly. However, the response his parent gave him was to say, ‘yes, they’re daddy’s socks, they’re the ones Grandma bought him for Christmas, aren’t they?'” Brian said.
“By doing that, she accepted and acknowledged the approximation as having meaning, which in turn runs the demonstration by them again and gives the child a chance to keep talking about that particular subject. And so this was a key example of how you use the conditions of learning, how you use the approximations and how you convey the expectations that you need to learn to talk like us. And my data showed that the majority of kids, where teachers were able to do this, would engage very deeply with the demonstrations and the responses that they got to their approximations.”
Condition for learning: Use and employment
Use and employment refers to a students opportunity to put their reading and writing into practice. A successful procedure to set up this condition is to preface each learning task.
“With the teachers that I worked with, who I thought really understood this, one of the little strategies they employed was that they would always preface the learning task, that they were about to ask the kids to engage in, with a subtle message of how it would help them learn better, or learn to be a better reader or writer,” Brian said.
“For example, I remember one teacher using a worksheet which had lots of rabbits on it. Most of the rabbits were looking to the right, and two were looking to the left. And the task was to put a circle around the bunnies that were looking the other way. So they had to circle the two bunnies that were looking to the left. And so the teacher said, ‘I want you to do this exercise because it will help you become a better reader’. It will help you learn to look for letters and the way that they are positioned on a page, because sometimes Bs and Ps can get confused with Ds. So this little exercise with the bunnies is one that will help you become more familiar with words and letters and how they form patterns on the page.
“Now, that’s a fairly simple little thing, but if you get into the habit of doing it, the kids eventually start to understand why you want them to do that, rather than just as something to keep them busy while you mark the roll or something like that.”
Applying the conditions together
The biggest takeaway from Dr Brian’s research is that these conditions are most powerful when used together.
“These conditions don’t live in isolation, in fact they’re all interrelated. They function together, and in that way, when we consider them together, the total effect is much greater than the sum of any one of these individual parts,” he said.
“And teachers who really understand the conditions of learning and how they work together, they’ll bring a kind of climate or ethos where they organise the way they distribute themselves across the time in the classroom in ways that enable their kids to make meaning, deconstruct, reconstruct, and gradually work their way towards the final form of whatever it is they’re trying to learn at that time.”
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