What Kind of Learning Are We Doing?

LibraryAs we approach the end of another semester and school year, it seems like a good time to talk about education:  how we learn, how we teach, and what we want that interaction between students and instructors to look like.

Let’s take this scenario:

An adult shows a group of children a toy that was designed with several secret surprises (a squeak, a mirror concealed inside, a piece that comes off, but all only if you move it in a certain pattern of ways).

With one group of children, the adult holds up the toy and acts as though she has never seen the toy before. When she “accidentally” moves it in such a way that it makes a sound, she exclaims:  “Wow, I wonder how that happened! Maybe I can do it again.” She then proceeds to pull and tug at the toy in various ways until the toy repeats the sound. Then she hands the toy over to the children, who first manipulate the toy as she did to make it repeat the sound, but then pull and tug and toss and wiggle the toy, exploring it in myriad ways until they discover the many secrets the toy has to offer.

With the other group of children, the adult acts in a very informative manner:  “Watch what happens when I do this!” The adult then demonstrates a series of movements and the toy makes a surprising sound. The adult demonstrates a different series of movements and no surprise happens. When the adult hands the toy over to the children, they enjoy themselves with the toy, repeating the successful movements to make the toy produce the surprise sound. But they never take the initiative to discover any of the other surprises the toy had in store.

In this piece on Slate.com, the author used studies like this (two separate, similar studies done with the same results) to argue against the idea of directed learning in preschool. Preschool, the author argued, is the time for creative, free-range play, a time for children to explore their world and absorb as much as they can about it. Being shown something by a teacher (the toy makes a sound when you move it like this) clues children in to the idea that there is nothing else to be learned here, cutting off the impulse to discover on their own. But of course, curiosity can’t be measured on a test or graded on any objective scale, and so the trend is to bring the kind of concrete learning that teachers are good at (these are your A B C’s) down into lower and lower grades.

As faculty and students in a university setting, why should we care about a study done about learning in four year olds?

Because we need to be aware of our own habits of mind, whether as instructors or as students. Right now, the American education system stresses directed learning – teacher imparting knowledge to student – over creative, exploratory learning where the student discovers knowledge on his or her own. This is the mindset we have grown up with; these are the lessons we have absorbed.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Are we, as teachers, telling our students what they need to know – and only what they need to know – or are we encouraging them to explore and learn on their own (with our guidance, of course)? Are we, as students, sitting in lectures mindlessly taking notes and asking, “Will this be on the test?” or are we actively engaging in class, asking questions, pulling the pieces apart, reassembling ideas into something new and different? How do we achieve what is probably the best possible outcome:  solid grades for students who have absorbed the curriculum while learning how to be creative and flexible thinkers who can approach any problem with intellectual tools that apply across new, complex, and unfamiliar situations.

Thoughts?

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