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Scott Brown challenges his students
to think for themselves
February 22, 1999
For years, the ninth graders in a medium-sized southern city have made an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. But this year the mayor has announced there is not enough money in the municipal budget. Julie, a young woman in the class, is undaunted. She and her friends have surveyed area residents about their willingness to participate in an organized aluminum can recycling effort. Based on the feedback, Julie thinks her class may be able to earn the money for the trip by recycling. At the mayor s office, Julie meets Larry, a local man who has heard about the financial shortfall and wants to help. Like Julie, he thinks the ninth graders might be able to recycle their way to D.C. Larry spends every weekend with his pickup truck, collecting discarded cans. He has become something of an expert on recycling. Indeed, when it comes to cans, you want Larry on your team.
In a Wednesday afternoon, early in February, two groups of UConn graduate students wish they had Larry on their teams. They are members of Professor Scott Brown's "Theories of Learning, Cognition and Instruction" class. And the recycling case study is part of a series of videodisc learning exercises - all featuring "Larry" - designed for middle school education.
The graduate students are not encouraged by the video's target age level. Seventh and eighth graders, learning math, logic or business basics, would have a matter of days, perhaps weeks, to review the video and develop a strategy to implement Julie's plan. But Brown has given his class little more than an hour to sort out the facts and decide whether Julie has a hope of making it to the nation's capital.
Whether she does or does not is almost beside the point. In Scott Brown's classes you don't really explore the value of cans. You explore the mysteries of the mind - the way people think and reason. Discovering how you function as a member of one of these recycling teams is likely to be a more enduring lesson than actually solving the problem.
"We all learn in different ways," explains Brown, who heads the Department of Educational Psychology. "For educators, it's important to understand the different learning strategies that students adopt in order to most effectively help students learn."
That's why the future educators who enroll in Brown's classes often find themselves grappling with mental challenges and solving puzzles. The name of the "Theories of Learning" class, indeed, may be a little misleading. Not that students don't explore how memory, thinking and problem-solving are related. And not that they don't compare a wide range of learning models.
But, while each student is required to research and write a substantial term paper, it is through practical exercises in class, like the recycling case study, that many of the students find they learn the most. Through these and Brown's infectious enthusiasm.
That may be his greatest gift as an educator. Monitoring the graduate students who are trying to solve the recycling case, for instance, he jokes and banters with them, salting the exercise with just the right amount of stress by occasionally reminding them that the clock is ticking.
You should never expect Scott Brown to give away answers, but as the two teams struggle to determine how Julie and Larry can get the ninth graders to Washington, he is quick to pose questions that propel thinking. And if students take a wrong turn, he gives them enough clues to get back on track.
"Good students challenge the professor to be better," says Brown, who holds the 1998 Alumni Association Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching. "I can't really give them a knowledge base. They must construct that for themselves. But I can function as a motivator. It's my job to lead them toward the knowledge and help them to obtain it for themselves. That's a very gratifying experience."
"Professor Brown taught the first education class I took as a student at UConn," says Amy Szydlowski, a member of the Theories class who is completing her master's degree this semester. "He's an exceptional teacher - not intimidating, but very challenging. He gets to the student level and provokes thinking. And he always makes time when we need extra help."
Janet Lowe, of Storrs, another student in the class agrees. "His class is very challenging. There is a great deal of material to read and the class exercises are demanding. But he adheres to the structure of the class and keeps it focused. And his teaching style is exciting and engaging."
"I try to make my classes models of what I want the students to learn," says Brown. "I constantly ask myself what I want my students to know and how I can construct a situation that will make it possible for them to acquire that knowledge. The best learning often takes place when there are 'teachable moments,' situations when the student is most receptive to information, because it addresses immediate questions. I try to construct those moments for my students."