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Cognitive tool for the swamp

Fred Janssen is curious about how best to teach students and students to gain a good understanding of complex ‘swamp situations’. This is the subject of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Science Education at the ICLON and the Faculty of Science. Inaugural address 19 June 2017.

Janssen has been involved in educating and professionalising teachers for more than 20 years. He often instructs teachers to do the following: make a top-3 list of what you think is most important to teach. Then, make a top-3 list of things on which your pupils or students spend most time in your teaching.

For their ideal top-3, teachers often name educational goals like: learn to ask questions yourself and find answers, critically assess issues from different perspectives, learn what you find truly important and learn to make independent choices and take responsibility for them. However, the top-3 activities on which the most time is actually spent are often very different. It came down to things like: listening to explanations, watching demonstrations and practising with the study material.

A lot of attention in teaching is devoted to explanation, demonstration and practice, but it would be good if education could contribute more to realising the ‘higher’ objectives. Janssen attempts to lay out why teachers often do not follow through on what they think is most important and why educational innovations that focus on higher goals often fail. He will also propose a possible solution.

With cognitive tools through the swamp

Much existing education prepares students and pupils to solve carefully constructed puzzles and problems, even though, in the ideal learning situation, students and pupils also learn to work within unstructured situations, which Janssen calls ‘swamps’.

One example of such a swamp situation is the ‘plastic soup’ in the oceans. It is a novel problem that cannot be solved like a puzzle. You need information from a host of perspectives: from chemistry to geography, and from jurisprudence to biology. In this case, it is not only important to convey knowledge of these separate components, but to learn solution-oriented thinking.

Janssen believes that the explanation for the persistent difference between the ideal and the existing situation should not be sought in the qualities of students or teachers. He wants to show that there is a primary lack of cognitive tools for students, pupils and teachers so they can comprehend complex swamp situations.

With the right cognitive tools, teachers can relatively easily transform their existing teaching into teaching that prepares students and pupils to both handle swamp situations and solve puzzles and problems.

The inaugural address will take place on Monday 19 June 2017, at 16:00 hrs. You can register using the form in the events item.

Fred Janssen’s research revolves around the question of how scientists can comprehend complexity and how teachers can convey these cognitive methods in a practical and inspiring way. Janssen has worked at ICLON since 1998 and received his PhD at Utrecht University in 1999 for his dissertation Learning Biology by Designing: Exemplified and Tested for Immunology'. Since 2014, he has been a Teaching Fellow at the Leiden University Teachers Academy.

Fred Janssen is also involved in the professionalisation of science teachers in secondary education. He conducts professionalisation sessions at the Regionaal Steunpunt Leiden and is an adviser in the field of science teaching.