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How do we learn?

A student of the Swiss psychologist, Piaget, Seymour Papert is an MIT mathematician who is the intellectual father of project-based learning. His constructionist view is that individuals learn, and learn best, by interacting with their environment to make things. They learn by doing and from the things that others do, and in this way construct new knowledge. Learning, on this view, is both self-directed and interactive. Piaget, too, stressed that learning is not simply passive. Children don’t learn by simply absorbing what they’re told, or abandoning what they learned in the past as some new piece of information comes along. Rather, they learn by interpreting what they encounter in the light of their prior experience. If we put these two ideas together, we have a much richer picture of how students learn than the still-popular ‘pipeline’ model of learning. Learning is much more than simply a transfer of information from one person to the next. What has this to do with students on the spectrum? By a happy accident, project-based learning is mandated by both the Common Core State Standards, and it is the how in how STEM subjects are taught. That favors those on the spectrum. They don’t learn particularly well by being lectured to, or by having information delivered to them in just one way, whether aurally, or visually, or kinesthetically. They do thrive when information is presented to them in a variety of modes, when they can engage the material, when it has a practical application and when they have an opportunity to apply it, in short when learning is project-based. If STEM is the what, in what subjects our students have an aptitude for learning, then project based learning is the how in how those subjects and our students are best taught.

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