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Stages of Learning in Thinking Processes

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The VELS take account of the developmental stages of learning young people experience at school. While student learning is a continuum and different students develop at different rates, they broadly progress through three stages of learning. General statements about characteristics of learners in these three stages are available at Stages of learning.

The following statements describe ways in which these characteristics relate to learning experiences and standards in each of the three stages of learning in the Thinking Processes domain.

Our understanding of how we construct and deconstruct thoughts is not an exact science; no two thinking styles are the same, preferences change over time, and students are unique individuals.

Students tend to progress from being concrete to abstract thinkers as they develop increasing expertise in a learning domain, and across the domains. This is to some extent a developmental process. However, it is also affected by other factors, such as levels of interest, context and the quality of instruction.

Concrete thinkers are likely to create meaning most effectively when knowledge and skills are developed sequentially, one step at a time, using logical processes.When students engage in concrete thinking, they tend to interpret information in terms of its practicality or usefulness. They have a preference for kinaesthetic or visual ways of receiving information, and tend to like questions that have an answer, rather than questions that are purely speculative.

Abstract thinkers are able to make connections and transfer knowledge with greater flexibility than concrete thinkers When students engage in abstract thinking, they tend to think in ideas or representations. They speculate about possibilities and conclusions, and develop beliefs on the basis of these. Abstract thinkers are more capable of building meaning in non-linear forms by creating patterns and overall frameworks. They are more likely to have insights in random ways.

Years Prep to 4 – Laying the foundations

We build our brains through experience, both real and perceived. Knowledge grows as our neurons make new connections, and as they increase or decrease the strength of existing networks in the brain. Information enters the brain through existing networks of neurons. It is these existing networks, this prior knowledge, which is the basis for constructing new understanding. We learn by attaching the new to the old, always building on what has gone before. Sometimes the old networks are so powerful that they become a barrier to new knowledge and we often carry childhood beliefs with us for a lifetime, even when we know that they are technically incorrect.

From birth, children use all of their available senses to give meaning to their world. The thinking brain evolved by building on parts that are involved in emotion and feelings, causing thinking and feeling to be intricately linked. Feelings directly influence our thoughts, behaviours and attitudes: for instance, stress may lead to impaired cognition and fear may result in the physical deterioration of memory systems; novelty and positive stimulation may lead to a heightened level of alertness and motivation. Our emotions can distract, as well as motivate. The capacity to manage emotions so that they are compatible with a task is a key thinking skill. Students who learn to manage their impulses early in schooling are more inclined to maintain thought-conducive emotional states for example, being persistent, calm and contemplative.

Children build their ability to reason from a context, or environment. The environment provides the practices, assumptions and values upon which reasoning is constructed. It follows that if students fail to understand the norms and values of a classroom, they will have difficulty understanding the reasoning that flows from those norms and values, and they will be subsequently hindered in their capacity to transfer that socialising skill to more formal applications.

At this stage, students learn discrete knowledge, skills and behaviours that develop their thinking. They make comparisons, identifying similarities and differences; they classify objects according to common properties; they learn about sequences and other patterns; they experiment with cause and effect; and they learn about the link between memory and understanding. These discrete thinking tools form the basis for becoming effective thinkers with respect to more complex patterns and frameworks.

Students build these thinking processes in concrete ways, hence physical representations of ideas and patterns help them to understand, explore, organise and reflect. The seeds of complex thinking processes are apparent in this stage of learning when students are generating questions and seeking answers, experimenting, employing trial and error, and drawing on existing knowledge to understand a new task. They are beginning to understand that complex thinking may lead to a change of viewpoint.

Years 5 to 8 – Building breadth and depth

This stage of learning marks the shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. At school, students become increasingly independent of family, and more aligned with peers. Independence implies a demand for self-determination in all aspects of life, including thinking and learning. Young people begin making choices about what is important and unimportant, what is relevant and what is not. They begin to comprehend that certainty is rarely guaranteed, that the world is full of complexity and contradiction: there may be more than one answer to a question and sometimes there is no answer.

The adolescent brain remains in the process of development. The parietal and temporal areas mediating spatial, sensory, auditory and language functions appear largely developed, but the frontal lobes are still maturing. Consequently, students are still developing their capacities in matters such as planning, organising, and anticipating consequences. It is critical that students methodically practise these skills. Between the ages of 10 and 14 years, the brain goes through a period when synaptic pruning occurs at twice the rate compared to any other stage in life. The brain is actively hard-wiring itself, strengthening and increasing connections to improve capacity in areas that are being used, and discarding connections in areas that are not being used, or are under-utilised.

It is important that students begin the shift from directed and discrete thinking tasks, to using thinking skills in a more flexible and discretionary way. They do this, in part, by involving themselves in extended projects with a plan and an outcome. They practise applying knowledge and diverse thinking skills to specific problems, and reflect on their work – what they have done competently and what they might improve, what they enjoyed, and what they learned from others. They repeat some tasks, and they consider how they might apply knowledge, skills and behaviours to other applications and aspects of their lives. (This transition is complex and occurs over many years, with development and specialisation continuing beyond schooling).

Peers become a key influence on attitudes. Students will at times be consumed by their peer relationships, both emotionally and cognitively. Many of their complex thinking skills will be conceived in the environment of their interpersonal experiences. They will transfer these skills to more formal applications, especially when the importance of these experiences is recognised and utilised by their teachers. At this stage, ethics and morality are extended into universal values that inform friendship, culture and nationhood. Theories, laws, principles and models add meaning to social and physical environments, both local and universal.

With the cognitive centres of the brain still developing, the emotional centres are more active. With other physical changes also occurring during this stage, young people are more sensitive to, and influenced by, emotions than at other times in their lives. Consequently, as thinkers they will be more responsive to experiential activities, as opposed to activities that are solely driven by concepts and theory. The awareness, understanding and use of feelings and senses become central to the development of thinking skills such as perception, understanding, memorising, abstracting, analysing and decision making.

Years 9 to 10 – Developing pathways

By the time students reach Year 9 they are well into adolescence and are beginning to look towards their future roles in life. They are reflecting and re-orienting themselves, developing a personal point of view and a personal place in life, and obligations, responsibility, and social expectations are becoming more prominent. These new responsibilities and expectations can be seen as adventure, learning and growth; they can also instil fear, loss of confidence, and insecurity. Adolescents are maturing physically at younger ages and entering the adult world of work and family at older ages; this has led to less clear roles for both parents and adolescents. Students are becoming independent of family by acquiring a personal point of view in relation to civics, ethics, beliefs and values. Peers become an increasing source of support and influence. At this stage, some students may reach an awareness of universal values and ethical principles.

Motivation and effort will be linked with a sense of identity, purpose, and beliefs about self. Many activities and experiences at school may not trigger curiosity, activate information seeking or develop competence. However, in relation to a broader perspective of the self, it is important that students understand the need to do well at school to prepare for the pursuit of life choices and/or career goals. The development of emotional management and positive coping skills are key thinking-related behaviours in this stage of learning, correlating with students being consistently task focused and able to persist through to achievement.

Competent learners are beginning to use more specialised cognitive strategies than in earlier years. They are developing coherent structures of knowledge and beginning to build expertise. They begin to understand the methodologies, language, skills and behaviours associated with discrete learning domains. They express preferences for particular styles of thinking and learning, and these preferences tend to inform motivation and competence. Their beliefs about personal strengths and weaknesses influence their levels of effort and personal choice. This in turn, is often reinforced by the development of strategies and habits.

Increased specialisation requires the development of routine study, organisational, note-taking and examination preparation habits. These gradually increase in complexity, requiring students to develop cognitive skills such as the use of deliberate memory and concentration techniques, and the adaptable use of graphic representations for ideas, thinking processes and frameworks.

Students continue to refine research methodologies, employing complex questioning, and forming conclusions and communicating data using a variety of media. Previously recognised patterns become theories, laws, principles and models. With encouragement and guidance from their teachers, motivated students will identify the ‘big’ questions, and will engage in extended processes involving complex thinking. They will (creatively) construct and (use critical analysis to) deconstruct ideas, concepts, events and objects. They will compare, classify, induct and deduct, analyse, detect errors, construct support, abstract, judge, problem solve, experiment, invent, investigate, apply and transfer, in flexible and deliberate ways. They will reflect on the effectiveness and usefulness of these endeavours. In this way, they will be developing creative and critical thinking abilities, and applying them to the expansion of their knowledge and skills.

National Statements of Learning

The Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) incorporate the opportunities to learn covered in the national Statements of Learning (www.mceetya.edu.au/mceetya/statements_of_learning,22835.html). The Statements of Learning describe essential skills, knowledge, understandings and capacities that all young Australians should have the opportunity to learn by the end of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in English, Mathematics, Science, Civics and Citizenship and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

The Statements of Learning were developed as a means of achieving greater national consistency in curriculum outcomes across the eight Australian states and territories. It was proposed that they be used by state and territory departments or curriculum authorities (their primary audience) to guide the future development of relevant curriculum documents. They were agreed to by all states and territories in August 2006.

During 2007, the VCAA prepared a detailed map to show how the Statements of Learning are addressed and incorporated in the VELS. In the majority of cases, the VELS learning focus statements incorporate the Statements of Learning. Some Statements of Learning are covered in more than one domain. In some cases, VELS learning focus statements have been elaborated to address elements of the Statements of Learning not previously specified. These elaborations are noted at the end of each learning focus statement.


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