Introduction to Industrial Engineering

By Jane M. Fraser

Chapter 3

Learning and teaching

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3.3 Theories of learning.

Researchers have developed theories about how people learn. Educational research has established two important facts:

  1. Students already have considerable knowledge, some of which is correct, and some of which is not. Students are not empty slates on which professors write. Students are not empty buckets into which professors pour knowledge.
  2. Learning is not a spectator sport. Active learning is better than passive learning, if the latter actually exists.

I will discuss each of these points and then describe the theory of andragogy, or adult learning.

Students already have considerable knowledge, some of which is correct, and some of which is not. People naturally search for explanations and theories to explain their own experiences. Wankat and Oreovicz wrote:

“For example, many engineering students start freshmen physics with the belief that a constant force must be applied to keep an object moving at constant speed. This belief results from years of pushing wagons, riding bikes, and driving cars. For those puposes this ‘knowledge’ is adequate. In first-year physics, Newton’s laws and friction are introduced, and the knowledge structure has [to] be reconstructed.” (page 284)

They also describe the theory of constructivism, which involves showing students experiments (for example, a dry ice puck) that challenge preconceived beliefs. Once the students have discarded old models, then the new, correct model can be introduced.

Everyone has ideas to contribute, most of which are correct, but some of which are wrong. We all have experience with systems, especially the experience we have gained from working for various organizations. We all search for explanations and theories to explain our experiences with systems.

One way in which our knowledge is sometimes wrong is that we can misinterpret our own experience. For example, a person may take the blame for a bad experience working for a fast food restaurant, but by discussing that experience, reading about how fast food restaurants organize work, and thinking more, the person may begin to understand how a system constrains how a person can act. Your personal experiences with employers are valuable information for us to discuss in class, but we will be continually trying to figure out how these examples fit into the concepts and ideas of industrial engineering. Your existing theories about how systems work and about how work is organized will probably need some adjusting as we learn about concepts from industrial engineering. My job includes challenging some of your beliefs. I will be surprised if you aren't uncomfortable at least once as you read this book.

Learning is not a spectator sport. Active learning is better than passive learning, if the latter actually exists. Research has clearly shown that people have an attention span for listening well to a lecture that is, at most, 20 minutes. The traditional one-hour lecture, however brilliant, is likely to lose people’s attention.

More sophisticated models exist (for example, the Kolb learning cycle), but I believe learning occurs through activity and reflection. Activity can be:

Reflection is harder to describe because it is internal and silent. As you read this book, you will be exposed to new ideas and you may have some of your existing ideas challenged; you need to take the time to think about the new ideas, make them your own, and perhaps replace some of your old ideas. After each section, ask yourself: what did I learn from that? Some professors promote such reflection by using a one-minute paper at the conclusion of each class, with questions such as: What idea did you learn today that you found interesting? What concept or idea still confuses you? Other professors have students keep learning journals, where students record their reactions to and thoughts about the activities involved in the class. You could argue that such reflection is still very active, but the activity is primarily inside your head.

You may find that these moments of reflection come naturally. I find that I do a lot of reflection while I drive (I have had only one small accident in my life, and that accident was not my fault, so my reflection doesn’t seem to impair my driving). Most people find that reflection works best when they are in a place where they are unlikely to be interrupted.

Literally, the word “pedagogy” means education of children. The word “andragogy” refers to the education of adults. Stephen Brookfield lists the four assumptions of andragogy, based on the work of Malcolm S. Knowles:

  1. "Adults both desire and enact a tendency toward self-directedness as they mature, though they may be dependent in certain situations.
  2. Adults’ experiences are a rich resource for learning. Adults learn more effectively through experiential techniques of education such as discussion or problem-solving.
  3. Adults are aware of specific learning needs generated by real life tasks or problems. ...
  4. Adults are competency based learners in that they wish to apply newly acquired skills or knowledge to their immediate circumstances. ...” (page 92)

Brookfield describes “self-directed, empowered adults” as adults who

"see themselves as proactive, initiating individuals engaged in a continuous re-creation of their personal relationships, work worlds, and social circumstances rather than as reactive individuals, buffeted by uncontrollable forces of circumstance.” (page 11)

Again, citing Knowles, Brookfield says that self-directed learning

“is defined as a process in which individuals take the initiative in designing learning experiences, diagnosing needs, locating resources, and evaluating learning.” (40)

“At the heart of self-directedness is the adult’s assumption of control over setting educational goals and generating personally meaningful evaluative criteria.” (19)

The learner's assumption of control clearly conflicts with having goals and evaluation that are determined by the professor. However, Brookfield acknowledges that learners can’t know what should be learned until they have learned it. The professor’s job includes motivating the learner by demonstrating the importance of the concepts being learned.

One implication of the fact that people already have concepts, the fact that active learning is better, and the assumption that adults are self-directed, is that a concept will not be accepted by adults just because the professor says the concept is correct. We can’t go into depth in all the topics in this course because it is an introduction to industrial engineering, but we should seek to understand why a concept is accepted and used by IEs.