12 February 2012

Taught v. Learned

Teachers often commiserate with one another over how little of their lessons are actually retained by the students. The standard defense is that the material was taught, but that students are too fickle to remember or at least admit to have remembered it. Teaching cycles often look something like this: assign reading, complete worksheet, discuss in class, distribute study guide, review, test, repeat. Perhaps most perplexing of all is the fact that students often perform well on assessments and then promptly seem to forget what they learned.

The problem lies partially in our natural tendency to forget some of what we learn, but perhaps more importantly in the difference between teaching and learning. Most lessons are not meaningful to the students, leading them to focus on isolating what they need to memorize to maximize their grade and then moving on. In short, the teachers teach what they think is important for students to know and the students, finding the material largely irrelevant, develop short-term cramming skills to perform well on the predictable assessments and then promptly forget the material.

As written tests are the most common way of verifying what students learned, teachers can point to strong test results and claim that they successfully taught the material, exonerating themselves from any subsequent student “forgetfulness.” From the student’s perspective, it becomes increasingly tempting to adopt an attitude of cynicism toward the boring, meaningless process. Inasmuch as students find their classes irrelevant, school becomes a mind-numbing process of going through the motions in order to get a grade. Copying worksheet answers, cheating on tests or gaming the system appear increasingly legitimate if the process is pointless to start with.

Modern teaching techniques, often involving group work, differentiated instruction and technology, attempt to address this divide between teaching and learning by making education more interactive, and thus more engaging. Given that students are bombarded with stimuli from various electronic sources and socializing all day long, the theory is that schools have to compete for their attention by using similar techniques. Unfortunately, such theories reduce students to animals whose attention can only be secured by flashy graphics on screens and social interaction. Intellectual engagement largely ignored, and the academic engagement resulting from these "21st Century Methods" continues to fare poorly against "19th Century Methods."

Ultimately, successful student engagement involves respecting the students as individuals and as thinkers. It requires the teacher to create an environment where students discover how the world works experientially, and appreciate the relevance of what they are studying. The definition of a master teacher is whether he can create such a learning environment. It can be done with or without modern technology; the more technology is used, the more additional skill the teacher requires to ensure that the technology contributes to rather than distracts from the focus of the learning.

Evidence of this basic principle is not hard to find. Master teachers like Rafe Esquith manage to effectively and consistently engage large, public school 5th grade classes, despite minimal resources and considerable bureaucratic obstacles. Meanwhile, many private "21st Century" classrooms and schools, boasting small class sizes, minimal bureaucracy, teaching assistants, diversified teaching styles and the latest technology achieve considerably less student engagement and meaningful learning.

There are some tangible steps which teachers can take to ensure that learning is happening. First, never waste the students' time and intelligence. Start classes on time, dispense with busywork assignments like crossword puzzles and mindless worksheets. Beware of excessive use of workbooks and mindless assignments like coloring maps.

Second, encourage integration of new concepts into existing knowledge. Start with what students know and create scenarios where students have to discover concepts by actively solving real problems rather than by passively listening to lectures or viewing media. A textbook example of this is Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way to teach the concept of racism.

Third, find innovative assessment methods that allow students to apply their ingenuity and understanding to new problems, without creating the free-rider incentives endemic to most group projects. Factual regurgitation should never be the center of assessment. Instead, have them apply what they learned in meaningful ways, like these simulated WWII letters to investigate the plight of the Japanese both in Japan and in the USA. Beyond assessing understanding, assessments can also help students to develop presentation skills appropriate to their chosen medium. Perhaps the most misunderstood medium is PowerPoint, which few teachers know how to effectively use themselves.

Finally, listen to the students by checking in regularly, both through formal surveys and informal discussion. Students are usually honest, sometimes to a fault, about how things are going. By including their feedback in the directions of the class, they are respected and validated as individuals. In a balanced class, they inevitably teach the teacher as much as they learn from him.