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It’s all about the students

Creating engaging and student-centered learning environments makes learning fun.

"You want a learning environment where students anticipate coming to class and regret leaving, versus the reverse," says Thomas O'Brien, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. "And they will if you engage them in FUNdaMENTAL - fun and mental - minds-on activities that support their active construction of new understanding"

Teaching and learning are not a transmission and reception process, O'Brien explains. "Knowledge cannot be downloaded," he notes. Rather, learning is a creative process in which new information interacts with students' prior knowledge and experience. With inquiry-oriented constructivist teaching that O'Brien recommends, the focus is on how to facilitate and support student learning.

O'Brien's research can be applied on two levels, the first of which models how teachers can use constructivist learning principles to teach science concepts in their classrooms everyday. But he also advocates and models the use of these same principles when teaching teachers about cognitive learning theory in professional development contexts. The goal is to "walk the talk" of research-informed curriculum-instruction-assessment practices.

One of the best ways to catalyze learning is through discrepant events - events that contradict what they normally believe, O'Brien says.

He uses this example:

Take two identical balloons, blow them up to different sizes, twist the ends and attach them to opposite ends of a wooden spool.

Then ask, what are the possibilities when you simultaneously release those twists?

Virtually no one makes the correct prediction according to O'Brien, because most people fail to recall their personal experience with blowing up balloons and rely instead on unsupported theories such as "bigger is stronger" and "equal sharing is best." "Scientists will use fancy words like equilibrium, and concentration and pressure gradients, but their prediction is wrong. The small balloon actually blows the large balloon up more," he says. And, while the explanation is complex, the logic is simple. "When is it hardest to blow up a balloon; when is there the most resistance?" asks O'Brien. "When it's small. So, perhaps as teachers we, too, have much to learn from our students."

See Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events (2010), More BPS... (2011) and Even More BPS...

(2011): This NSTA Press series features a new dual-purpose instructional strategy for use in preservice science methods courses, inservice science professional development programs and by individual science teachers (grades 5-12).

See:   for a 7-minute interview where the author answers questions about the focus of the book series by demonstrating this discrepant event.

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Last Updated: 8/20/12