Sunday, February 04, 2007

Week 1: Reflective Learning

Educational theory often leaves me with the feeling that if you try to summarise it, the whole concept will implode. However, as part of this course we, the students, are expected to become 'Reflective Learners'.

Our first task is to work out what this is, and to that end, a number of papers have been provided for us to read and consider.

If you can't face wading through the reams of text below (and that's a summary!) I think the basic idea is that you have two options when you are learning: you learn by being taught, or you learn by going out and finding out for yourself.

Reflective Learning in Science Education

As a research scientist by training, I started with the paper on Science Education, hence my opening statement. I very much doubt I can link to the paper here, but I will try and summarise my understanding of the concept.

At its simplest, there are two contrasting methods of educating scientists: one where the focus is on gaining knowledge by teaching, and one where the focus is on gaining knowledge by experience.

The first is seen most commonly in science courses: lots of information is provided during lectures, students study the information, and are able to answer questions based on the information provided during exams. The student ends the course with a large body of knowledge, but little or no experience of how to continue learning outwith the structured environment of the course.

The second has been gaining ground, particularly in the training of doctors, in Scotland (in my experience). It appears to focus on teaching a student how to learn, rather than on how to be taught. There is more discussion, and less lecturing. Students are given a scenario, access to reference material (both formal and informal) and the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and more experienced individuals. Each stage of the learning process involves both information gathering and decision making, and absolutely requires the student to reflect on both the question being asked and their knowledge of the field.

The difficulty with this approach seems to be that it can be very difficult to assess the technical competence of a student. It is more suitable for self- or small group-study than for the traditional lecture-style course, and in purely practical terms requires an entirely new building design aimed at fostering interaction between students.

For an example of this, see the new Medical School at the University of Glasgow.

This kind of learning appears to be more easily continued outwith the formal study environment.

Decision making and design

The second paper we are asked to read linked here is in the field of mechanical engineering design, and focuses on the decision making process.

According to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, design is
"a decision-making process (often iterative), in which basic sciences, mathematics, and the engineering sciences are applied to convert resources optimally to meet stated needs." The natural conclusion is that to be good designers, engineers should be skilled decision-makers.

The article goes on to describe various ways of decision-making: some very technical and structured.

Pugh Concept Selection seems to be a more structured version of the old PMI decision-making tool (plus, minus, interesting) where each feature of a proposed design is rated against set criteria, and the results used to choose the best of a number of competing designs.

Interestingly, the authors note that this method does not allow for interaction between different features: where two good features may result in an undesirable product (how about a people-carrier with sport-style seats and steering and alloy wheels...?)

Good decision-making, according to the paper, will acknowlege both uncertainty and risk as well as eproduct characteristics and profitability. The final decision will depend both on the intrinsic value of a product and on the manager's attitude to risk.

Another interesting point, and one that has been made before, is how well our instinctive decision-making process works.

People use simple heuristics—the experience of trial and error—to make decisions under uncertainty. What is surprising is how well these simple heuristics work.

Too many choices, as anyone in a wallpaper shop will be able to tell you, can make a decision impossible to reach!

The final point in the article is that experienced decision makers use a "recognition-primed" method: put simply, this is using prior experience and knowledge to make a rapid decision which can appear instinctive. Their level of experience is such that they do not need to consciously think about a situation in order to make the correct decision, or carry out the appropriate action.

Gut reaction is not infallable: merely one tool for an experienced professional.

My understanding of this article is that you should trust your gut reaction in areas where you are experienced, and develop your knowlege and experience in other areas in order to make good decisions.


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