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Engaging With Learners

By Disan Davis

Engage with the person. Knowledge should be co-created by individuals at different levels, taking into account others’ backgrounds and contexts rather than transferring knowledge from “us” to “them.” Critical pedagogy (Freire) extends this to suggest that learning deeply must include a critical lens on the context and society shaping this knowledge, which is especially important given that many people have been harmed by unethical and questionable things done in the name of “science.”

Building on the educational philosophy of Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky proposed that knowledge is co-constructed as a social interaction between an interested learner and a more-knowledgeable other. Importantly, this suggests that the experiences and engagement of the learner are essential for learning to take place. Specifically, the transfer of knowledge requires “scaffolding” that allows the learner to move into a previously-unknown realm through steps that help the learner to progressively construct knowledge and meaning. Vygotsky proposed that this process allows learners to learn in order to develop, a state he famously referred to as the “zone of proximal development.”

As educators in any setting, the core of our work is in the interaction between learners and more-knowledgeable others. In one case we are the “more-knowledgeable” scientist; we cannot just expect the learner to take what we tell them, but rather we need to know the learner, scaffold a set of steps or experiences that allow that learner co-construct meaning with them, and acknowledge that this is a process. Importantly, Vygotsky has identified the role generally as a “more-knowledgeable other” leaving room for many individuals, including learners who more quickly grasp a new idea, to fill this roll. The more we can take advantage of everyone’s’ knowledge and contributions for the benefit of other learners, the more efficiently and effectively we all become more knowledgeable.

Science outreach efforts are often challenged by the variety and inconsistency of scientific knowledge across people. Learners can vary in their science content knowledge as well as in their proficiency with scientific skills and thought processes (e.g. scientific reasoning). Importantly, individual learners can have significant holes in their prior knowledge that differ from others and make it challenging to build on learners’ prior knowledge as a group. When should we dive deeper to fill these holes and when should we gloss over some of the inconsistencies in order to focus on the intended content? This often depends on the context and how sustained your interaction is with the learner. Sometimes the most realistic answer is how to move forward. It can be helpful for learners to see that there are gaps in their knowledge even if they are not addressed presently—helping to motivate them to learn, through constructive, positive feedback. Meanwhile, the new knowledge you want to convey must have a stronghold on something that the learner already knows. So often times the goal is to figure out how we can build off of what the learner knows in order to explore a new idea in a short timeframe.

Vygotsky’s educational philosophy also maps very well onto effective mentorship practices as scientists can be effectively trained from thoughtful scaffolding of experiments and research practices in order to co-create knowledge in the prospective scientist (and hopefully scientific discovery will lead to new knowledge for everyone as well).

Adding dimension through the educational philosophy of Paolo Freire

Paolo Freire adds a very useful dimension for thinking about learner engagement and prior knowledge, especially when considering science outreach to underserved communities. Freire established critical pedagogy which challenges educators and learners to take a critical lens to their own structure and foundation of knowledge. Why do we need to know this? Who says so? To whose benefit?

This has important implications for science, which has historically been used to promote sexist and racist classifications of people, been performed on disadvantaged people without their consent, and been conducted by a relatively homogeneous subset of the population. These are essential topics to address when engaging with people harmed by science and taking a critical lens to science can help to build trust and agency in the students.

Collectively, it is essential that we know the people we are engaging with, meet them where they’re at (academically, emotionally, etc.), scaffold new knowledge and skills to build off of their current knowledge, and critically examine the role of science for them, their communities, and our broader society.

Some tools that can help engage in these ways:

  • Find out where your learners are at — Do Now (asking an initial question of students while settling into the session, usually written or projected on the board), Pre-test (especially helpful if you want to collect data on changes between pre- and post- tests), Interactive survey tools (clickers, poll everywhere, etc.) that allow you to ask questions and collect learners’ responses in real time, etc.
  • Encourage sharing from learners and between learners (think-pair-share, museum walk with post-its, jigsaw, photo association, etc.)
  • Praxis intervention — meaning for individuals to apply their learning to individual projects (such as experiments or community projets) and bring back their results and questions for clarification, validation, and optimization
  • Inquiry-based learning, as a more straightforward implementation of the praxis model
  • Wait time (my personal favorite) — what you’re saying and asking is likely very new, so give the students time to think; 10 sec is nothing in thinking time, but feels like forever when you’re waiting, so count to 10 or look around at something so you don’t rush or steamroll past good-ideas-in-progress
  • Reflection — asking students to reflect on their experiences, new knowledge, and perspectives on a science outreach experience can help to strengthen the connections to existing knowledge and experience, while asking students to reflect on what to share of their experience with their family or community can help them to think about why they learned what they did and how they can take agency
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