The Power of Reflecting Upon Your Own Learning Ecology

by Jailson Lima

Chemistry Department, Vanier College, Montreal, QC, Canada

In the previous post, I mentioned Norman Jackson’s powerful idea that creating knowledge is part of a unique process that takes place in our embedded learning ecology.  I teach a course on creativity as part of the Master Teacher Program at the University of Sherbrooke, in which students explore the different facets of their own creativity by describing their personal learning ecologies.  To illustrate the power of such self-reflective activity, I provided them with the following sample of my own learning ecology.

I was born in a small city in the north of Brazil, and my family moved to São Paulo when I was three. Music played a significant role in shaping my childhood memories and imagination because the radio was constantly playing until we got our first TV when I was 9 years old. Not being exposed to TV as a young child might have triggered my lifelong passion for music and reading. During adolescence, I felt a transcendence to imaginary worlds while reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury. Reading Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was a transformative experience that initiated my lifelong interest in astronomy, space exploration, and the natural sciences.  Mars became an everlasting passion that will appear repetitively in different moments of my teaching practice.

Growing up in São Paulo had a massive influence on my learning ecology. My contact with nature was sporadic and limited to weekends at the beach a few times each year. Despite this negative aspect, the ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan city with over 10 million inhabitants has a vibrating cultural life with universities, international film festivals, high-caliber museums, a well-established Art Biennale, and an impressive theatre district. Being immersed in such a culturally rich environment gave me the opportunity to further develop my interests in history, art, and science that were later used in my teaching practice.

I did my undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral studies in Chemistry at the University of São Paulo. My graduate studies included both the synthesis and studies of the reactivity of coordination compounds with an emphasis on chemical reactions triggered by light.  My thesis supervisor adopted an approach that cultivated students’ creativity and independence. For example, students were asked to design glassware to conduct synthesis and photochemical reactions in the absence of atmospheric oxygen. We drew the glassware on graph paper and, after meticulously debating with other students, sent the revised blueprints to the professional glassblower employed by the chemistry department. At the time, I was not able to recognize the complexity of such a task; but now, in hindsight, I can fully appreciate the high-level cognitive skills that were involved in this process of creation. All group members were involved in multiple stages of chemistry research: synthesizing new compounds, designing experiments, installing and maintaining lab equipment, collecting data, writing articles for specialized journals, and presenting the work at both national and international conferences. At the time, I thought that this was the norm in graduate school. However, I found later that it was not the case at all. Being constantly challenged to excel in multiple creative tasks gave me both the skills and the confidence to explore creativity in its multiple facets in my future endeavors in education. And this is something that I am finally able to acknowledge after these many years.

After completing my graduate studies, I taught chemistry in Brazilian high schools and universities for three years. During that period, I worked at a private high school that promoted the use of multidisciplinary projects to make learning dynamic and meaningful. I witnessed there, for the very first time, the use of artistic expression to enhance learning in language, history, geography, and sociology courses in an integrated and multidisciplinary fashion. In 1997, the successful landing of the Pathfinder rover on Mars revived my lifelong interest in the red planet. I felt compelled to incorporate this landmark in space exploration in my courses by introducing the principles of Astrochemistry to integrate chemistry with both physics and biology. For each module, I promoted reflection by introducing open questions such as Can we expect the chemical composition of the surface of Mars to be like that of Earth’s? Could the isotopic distribution of the elements on our planet be different from the one on Mars? Answering questions like these requires a high degree of speculation and shifts the pedagogy away from the right-wrong dichotomy of traditional science courses.  I did not expect students to give the “correct” answer but to emotionally engage their imaginations.  With the limitations of the pre-Internet era, I relied on the stunning pictures of the Martian landscape taken by Pathfinder as a starting point. 

As part of this project, a mobile planetarium was set up in the school’s gymnasium to provide visual cues to contextualize the course content and introduce the basic ideas of a chemically controlled cosmos where elements are generated in stars.  When learning about chemical bonding and chemical reactions, I presented unusual chemical species that had been detected in interstellar space to emphasize that the structures and reactions of chemical substances given in our textbooks are based on their reactivity patterns on or near the Earth’s surface.  However, those patterns can change remarkably under the different conditions of temperature, pressure, and electromagnetic radiation that are found in space—or even on the surface of Mars.  What can happen to the chemical reactivity of those substances when exposed to high-energy electromagnetic radiation?  This type of question opens the door to other leaps of imagination: What is light? What are the so-called gamma rays that transformed Dr. David Banner into the Incredible Hulk?  What is the chemical composition of Wolverine’s claws? 

In hindsight, I can now clearly see some strong interconnections in my learning ecology: from Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to my graduate studies of the photochemistry of coordination compounds, it is all there.  Writing about our own learning ecology is a beautiful illustration of metacognition: intentionally thinking about how we think and learn.  

My suggestion to you is to reflect on your personal learning ecology and find the connections among your passions and interests, and how they do and can inspire your teaching.

In the next post, I will describe my teaching approaches that were developed at Vanier College that combine Mars, arts, and science.

Stay tuned.

Images: Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)



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