Learning, Understanding, and Conceptual Change

At a conference last summer, I saw the presenter Aaron Sams ask his phone, “Google, what is the electron configuration of oxygen?”, and his phone immediately responded: “The electron configuration of oxygen is 1s22s22p6”.  I think I stopped breathing for a second.  I knew it was easy to “Google” information – but I hadn’t realized just how quickly and easily my students could access information that I spent hours helping them learn!  It made me question what I really wanted my students to learn.  Do they need to learn to use an algorithm for determining electron configurations?  Or do I just want them to understand how electron configurations relate to properties of elements? Or do they need both?  And how can I help them learn it in a way that they’ll remember and transfer that understanding to new contexts?

I found Bransford, Brown & Cocking’s book How People Learn (2000) helpful as I reflected on what learning entails and how to best assist my students in the learning process.  In response, I wrote this essay.  I welcome your comments and responses.

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