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Experiential Concept (EC) Learning
Experiential Concept (EC) Learning


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The Digital Divide in Education

The emphasis on digital learning should not be about availability of Internet/ broadband
but how well the Internet is used and "active" versus "passive" technology in schools.

Many schools have "smart" classrooms - where science and math videos
concepts are projected onto the board and cartoon characters are introduced in an
attempt to make the content "kid-friendly". Studies show that this approach
is not effective.

The PISA assessment of math and science problem solving capabilities found
that students in Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries are doing the best.
In Singapore, the stress is on academic rigour and training teachers.

During the 1960s, Edgar Dale theorized that learners retain more information by what they
“do” as opposed to what is “heard”, “read” or “observed”.
His research led to the development of the Pyramid of Experience.
Today, this “learning by doing” has become known as “experiential learning” or “action learning”.

While videos may seem impressive and good, their impact on educational achievement is low - they
neither help teachers much nor are they rigorous.
An active app which forces the learner to interact or a group game which makes all learners participate
is far superior to a video in terms of learning impact.

Learning is an active process. We learn by doing.
Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.
-Dale Carnegie

The Internet has had a profound impact on availability and accessibility of knowledge.
However, the "digital divide" continues to exist. Those schools which are able to ensure that
students have access to devices which promote active learning have a big advantage over
both those which promote "passive" learning through videos and those which do not have
access to individual devices.
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Science: Induction and Deduction

The bedrock of science is the scientific method which relies on the two skills of induction and deduction.
Induction is reasoning from the specific to the general.
Deduction is reasoning from the general to the specific.
To better understand this, let us take a simple example.

Alice observes that a cat has 4 legs, a dog has 4 legs and a cow has 4 legs.
From this, she "induces" the hypothesis that all animals have 4 legs.
That is, Alice did induction - she went from specific examples to a general hypothesis

Note that going from the specific to the general may lead to erroneous hypotheses.
For example, a snake is an animal without legs.
Or Alice may hypothesize that anything with 4 legs is an animal which would make a chair an animal.

Bob, starts from a "theory" that all animals have 4 legs.
When told of a new animal sighting, he reasons that this new animal has 4 legs.
That is, Bob did deduction - he went from the general theory to a specific deduction.
His deduction can now be tested either confirming or disproving the hypothesis that all animals have 4 legs.

The scientific method consists of making an "inductive" guess about how things work,
then making "deductive" predictions from that guess that can be tested.
From observations, Einstein induced the general theory of relativity.
From this theory came the "deductive" prediction that light would be affected by gravity.
And this deduction was verified by observations of stars in the 1919 solar eclipse.

What does this have to do with education and learning science?
A theory in science can never be "proved" true - it can only be proved false.
Science learning is best done by repeatedly inducing hypotheses,
deducing predictions and experimentally testing the hypotheses.

...Enumerative induction does not exist as a psychological process.
Consequently, science instruction should provide students with opportunities
to generate and test increasingly complex and abstract hypotheses and theories ...

--“What is the role of induction and deduction in reasoning and scientific inquiry?”
Anton Lawson, 2005

This is why experiments are so important in science.
Science is built on observation, induction and verification through deduction.
Effective learning of science can be done only by going through this process.
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Active Learning: How effective?

Technology-enabled active learning is a teaching format pioneered at MIT for freshman Physics.
It merges lectures, simulations, and hands-on desktop experiments to create rich collaborative learning experience.
Student reactions are positive -
"There's no pretending that you're understanding the material and then zoning off ...
By attempting to solve problems you truly 'get' the concepts."

With over 100 million uses per year, the PhET Interactive Simulations project
at the University of Colorado Boulder is educating the next generation of engineers.
Founded by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman in 2002,
it has a collection of 130+ openly-licensed simulations.
Students learn through exploration and discovery and
build connections between STEM topics and the real world,
and access the models used by STEM experts.

Students in traditional classes are 150% more likely to fail compared to students in active learning
classes. An analysis of 225 studies on student performance in STEM courses, shows a 6%
improvement for active learning classes.

--(paraphrased from)“Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”
published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014

When the first electronic calculators came onto the market,
teachers banned them since they felt that students would become dependent
on the calculators and their math skills would suffer.
In retrospect, such concerns seem quaint and antiquated.

Nor is technology the panacea to cure all ills.
Research reinforces that learning in the classroom is most effective when it proceeds the same way we learn anything new:
incrementally, being challenged, trying again.
Technology should be used with that objective in mind.
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Closing the Loop: Testing

Testing goes hand-in-hand with learning.
When students are used to frequent testing, it loses its emotional teeth,
and help reveal gaps and foster active engagement in the material.
The actual process of taking a test also helps us
to learn and retain new information and apply it across different contexts.

Taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect
on future retention of that material than spending
an equivalent amount of time restudying the material.

-Henry L. Roediger III, Cognitive Psychologist, Washington University

Unfortunately, today "standardized" testing has a bad reputation because of the
"high stakes" associated with it. The Gaokao exam in China determines the career of a student. SAT exams
determine whether or not students will get placement in a school.

Testing also puts an additional burden on teachers who now have to create,
administer and score tests - which is time taken away from classrom learning.

So here is the dilemma.
Testing is beneficial and complementary to learning.
However, it often becomes "high-stakes" and overloads the teachers.

Happily, this dilemma has a very simple solution.
Students now have easy access to smart devices and
testing can be automated with apps on these devices.
Students can take the tests as and when they want.
Feedback on their performance is immediately available to them and
can also be passed on to teachers.

As icing on the cake, the tests
can adapt to the skills and knowledge level of the students making them
more relevant and useful.
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The Secret to Learning: "EC"

Experiential learning is any learning where students apply their knowledge
and conceptual understanding to understand and solve problems.

As per Hermann Ebbinghaus's learning curve, if the absorption rate is at 100% during a lecture,
there is a 50-80% loss of learning from the second day onward.
At the end of 30 days, learning retention is just 2-3%.

How does experiential concept learning or "EC" learning work?
FASTER LEARNING: Critical thinking and problem solving reinforce the concepts learnt.
SAFE LEARNING: Learners can safely test out their ideas in a safe, simulated environment -
be it radio-activity or steam turbines.
INCREASED ENGAGEMENT: Participation makes learning effortless and automatic -
this is not some theory being thrust upon them.
SEAMLESS ASSESSMENT: How the learner addresses the experiments can be unobtrusively monitored
to see how well concepts are understood

There is no substitute for trying, failing and learning through experience.
And there is no learning without experience for all our thoughts are formed
from our perceptions. If we think back to how we learned to sing or paint or
ride a bicycle, we realize that all our learning came from within, from our
experiences and not through lectures and books.

I never teach my pupils,
I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.
-Albert Einstein

The most important thing we can do to help children learn is to provide them
experiences whereby they can understand, reflect, learn and conceptualize.
Learning then becomes "EC"!
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The Medium is the Message

As society's perceptions and ways of doing things change because of technology,
it is then we realize the social implications of the medium.
For example, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less
about the crime itself — the content — and more about the change in public perception of crime
causing such crimes to be reported prominently in the news.

The Medium is the Message.
-Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man - Marshall McLuhan

The impact of the medium has been profound in education.

In prehistoric times, education was through the spoken word transmitted through fables and stories.

As writing became prevalent, hand-written books copied by monks,
spread new knowledge like geometry and algebra across the world. <br/>
The Gutenberg printing press, invented in the 1400's, made printed books
with knowledge and education readily accessible and triggered the renaissance period. <br/>
The Internet in 1990's dramatically increased access to information in the form of text, images and videos,
accelerating the creation of a knowledge economy.

Today, tablets and cellphones are making this knowledge interactive.
Apps now "learn" the student and make learning delightful and efficient.

Teachers and students can and must leverage this new medium - of active knowledge.
The next generation should not just be literate in the three R's.
They need to be "critical thinkers" who understand the concepts and
cause-effect chains behind physical and social phenomena.
STEM and science awareness is a necessity as we get bombarded with information from all directions.
In today's world, smart learning using active knowledge is no longer a "nice-to-have" but a "must-have".
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Situated Learning in Context

Traditional learning occurs from abstract, out of context experiences such as
lectures and books.

Situated learning takes place when students are actively involved in addressing real
world problems and connect prior knowledge with authentic, contextual learning.
When immersed in the experience,
students are challenged to use their critical thinking and kinesthetic abilities.

Given the scope of the curriculum, what is the best way to encourage situated learning?
How could children learn safely about atomic energy and radio-activity? How could they imbibe
electrical circuits without getting lost in the complexity?

A good example of situated learning is how babies learn language.
Parents go through the entire gamut of behaviors from
directing, coaching, supporting and delegating.
Babies, in turn, pick up a tremendous number of cues from a "noisy" environment...
And voila - they are soon experimenting with grammar and speaking on their own.

All knowledge is ... like language.
A concept will continually evolve with each use, is always under construction.
It is common for students to acquire algorithms, routines, and definitions
that they cannot use and that, therefore, lie inert.
They can only be fully understood through use...
- Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning: Brown, Collins and Duguid

Learners need interactive environments to experiment, conceptualize and crystallize their ideas.
Technology can dramatically improve learning by providing safe situations for
use, experimentation and experience.
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IDEAS - Finding and "Minding"

In the 1400's, before Gutenberg invented the printing press, knowledge was scarce.
It was disseminated in person or on manually copied scrolls.
As recently as the 1990's, when the Internet did not exist,
knowledge was concentrated in books and libraries.

Today, finding information is as simple as opening a browser window
and searching on a good search engine like Google.
Books, learned articles, journal papers are all accessible at the click of a mouse.

Nevertheless, advances in access to knowledge and information,
have not changed the limited ability of a human to absorb and understand information.
In fact, a recent Microsoft consumer study claims that the human attention span today is 8 seconds,
down from 12 seconds in 2000.

A human can read and understand a paragraph of light information in a minute.
If the information is dense, it may take a few minutes.
In other words, while technology has solved the "finding" problem of knowledge,
the "minding" problem - how to be able to get that knowledge into the mind - remains.
Can technology help us learn faster, better, deeper?

The interactivity of technology environments ...
makes it easy for students to revisit specific parts of the environments,
to explore them more fully, to test ideas, and to receive feedback.
Noninteractive environments, like linear videotapes, are much less effective...
---National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn

Learners need interactive environments to experiment, conceptualize and crystallize their ideas.
They will learn better about rigid body mechanics by throwing a football around than through
equations on parabolic trajectories.

Classroom instruction needs to be supplemented by environments to interactivly explore concepts.
Technology can dramatically improve learning by providing a safe environment for
experimentation and experience.
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Individualized Learning

Our K–12 system largely adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education.
Some educators aargue that education should not use this “industrial” model.
Others argue that industrialization' is actually necessary - automation and
labour saving devices can be leveraged to enable universal education.

Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods...
not mechanization… but freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that
she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning.
--Sidney Pressey, 1932

Children need “space” and guidance to experiment, conceptualize and crystallize their learnings.
Tools and automation to reduce teacher drudgery are welcome since the time can be better spent in guidance.
This is the idea behind the “flipped classroom”.

The “mass instruction” in the cassroom needs to be supplemented by individualized “experiences”
where students build a solid understanding of physical phenomena at their own pace, in their own way.
For the best learning, these individualized experiences should provide clear, quantitative feedback
both on pace and amount of progress.

- Sridhar Sundaram
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Wait, how does that work?
(Guest Post by Venkatraman Gopalan)

A trick I have learnt over the years when I see or hear something unusual is to ask: Wait, how does that work?

Every object persists in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line unless
it is compelled to change that state by external forces.
- Newton’s first law

Wait, how does Newton's first law work?
My coffee cup sitting “at rest” on my table is actually moving at 1000 miles per hour
around the Earth’s axis as the earth rotates.
The Earth itself is revolving at 67,000 miles per hour around the Sun,
and the Sun, the solar system, and our galaxy are all moving at unimaginable speeds.
So nothing around us is at rest, or moving in a straight line. So what does Newton's law mean?

“Motion” in Newton’s laws refers to relative motion, and the above law was first deduced by Galileo
with an ingeniously simple experiment (see image from

Experiments bring abstract notions to life and deepen learning.
But real-life experiments are not always possible -
imagine tampering with the mass of the Earth or changing its orbit to see what happens.

Technology can be a powerful tool to create a working model for our observations.
Playing with computer simulations of physical phenomena provides tremendous insights into our world,
and helps us make new predictions that can then be further tested.

- Venkatraman Gopalan
The author, Venkatraman Gopalan (B.Tech IIT Chennai, 1989; Ph.D Cornell University, 1995),
is a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and
Engineering Science and Mechanics at the Pennsylvania State University.
His group’s research activities can be viewed at
He can be reached at
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