Learning about Learning

Even when I’m on break, I think a good deal about the classroom.  This break I’ve been reading Matthew Mullins’s Enjoying the Bible, which is a nice literary approach to the Bible that doesn’t land in some soft “Bible as literature only” spot.  I’m just about done with it and have been greatly encouraged by it.

So this weekend I came across this article about learning from Brian Fink.  It speaks to a perennial concern for most teachers about what students learn and why.  A sample paragraph:

There’s a difference between “cramming to pass and learning.” Unfortunately, many current pedagogical models favor the former over the latter – not necessarily in principle, but in practice – because the former provides an immediate tangible metric to evaluate, while the latter may neither show up immediately nor ever, at least in the form it was given. What’s more, teachers find themselves constantly going back over the materials, spending more and more instructional time reviewing and reassessing to make sure the students “get it.” But why? In that scenario, what does the student finally, actually, know, and at what cost to everything he didn’t?

I admit to walking the line with this. Part of why I encourage memorization of material is so that they key points can become background knowledge and because if you don’t know anything, you end up arguing emotions only.  But it can create a “cram to pass” scenario for those not necessarily paying attention.

It’s a good article.  I’m not sure I totally agree with Charlotte Mason’s approach (she plays a key role in the article), but I understand where she’s coming from.  I appreciate that Mason acknowledges a particularly tricky thing about teaching and assessments:

The teacher was deliberately instructed not to pause in the middle of the reading to pose comprehension questions or checks for understanding. By doing so, Mason argued, the teacher trains the student not to pay attention while they are reading, because they soon come to realize that the teacher will eventually tell them what they are supposed to know anyway. And when a student takes this to its logical conclusion, he or she realizes that no actual close reading of any text is required, because again, the teacher has not only told them ahead of time what they are supposed to know (anticipatory sets, objectives written on the board), and told them what they should be knowing as they read (pause for checks for understanding and discussion questions), but will also tell them again what they should have learned by providing a study guide for the upcoming assessment.

It’s a version of “will this be on the test” that I experience often, where students forgo thinking alone or with others because they’ll get the correct answer from me eventually (because they’ll need the correct answer on the test).

It’s good to think about thinking and to learn about learning, especially when it doesn’t fit the mold of an industrialized/instrumentalized education that too often happens today.

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