Saturday, May 22, 2010

Learning Trumps Telling

Hopefully, you watched the clip in my last post, Making Math Real. What I loved about Dan Meyer's teaching method is a cornerstone of what I believe about education and learning in general. Until it makes an iota of sense, and I mean in a global sense, to a student, the lesson is akin to Snoopy-talk--a series of meaningless words.

In testing  my theory,  I have to study my own life as it is my best experimental laboratory. How do I learn? What makes the difference between information I deposit and discard? If it isn't important to me or related to something I want to know about, my husband will attest that my eyes practically roll back in my head. He knows this first-hand as he has attempted over the years to fill me with engineering-ish minutia such as bicycle componentry and specifications. All I care about on a bike is that it has two inflated tires, working brakes, and gears that will make it easier for me to climb hills. In other words, I really don't care about the rest. No amount of telling me is going to motivate me to plant that information anywhere but on the cutting room floor.

Our kids are getting this kind of forced telling in school everyday. I'm not saying much of it isn't important but in the memorizing and the writing of it, are they really learning anything? I just watched my sophomore son work through a major project for his history class. He had to choose a current world issue, write a paragraph on his intent to research the topic, make an outline, and write an essay. He chose terrorism. Interesting topic. Lots of great information out there. Great opportunity to learn something about his world. But in the end could he tell me anything about terrorism other than the fact that dudes kill each other? No. He was just cranking out the work. He hasn't been touched (he doesn't think) by terrorism so he had little motivation to make connections between his assignment and his world.

It's a delicate process, searching for the thing that lights our students' fires, and not an easy one. I am fortunate to have just one student. Still it is a daily process of watching, listening, guiding, and taking opportunities when they present themselves while at the same time not squelching the interest in my zeal to take advantage of it.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D. and an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada has a great piece on this topic in Psychology Today. In his article, "Education is Not the Filling of the Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire", he says this, "Without an emotional response on the part of the student, without sparking the students' interest, it's doubtful there will be a fire for learning."

I'm seeing this is true with SJ, too. I find I can get him to accomplish a whole lot more if I can tie a lesson to something he is excited about. That is why, a week after he mentioned how good he was at writing fantasy stories, he was asked to work on character sketches for three fantasy characters. (Note the week delay between interest and assignment--sneaky, right?) My reluctant writer tackled that project first that day and didn't even stop to think that he was having a lesson.

Are we hitting every standard the state mandates and in the order they propose? I am sure we are not. But is he learning something? I am positive that he is. I am not saying this is easy and there are days when I panic because my son might not be able to name the layers of the earth's core by memory. When this happens, I have to remind myself that I brought him home to learn and what he learns is always going to be far more valuable than what he memorizes.

No comments:

Post a Comment