Students often wish that they could drag and drop a textbook into their brain to learn math but it is not that easy. It isn’t as easy as listening to a mathematician or even as easy as listening to someone outline the steps of solving a problem. This question drives me, How exactly do people learn? Capitalism tells us that the premiere method of knowledge transfer is lecture supplemented with recitations, labwork and projects. This recipe has produced productive citizens for the past hundred years but it does not feel like the best we can do. I am convinced that improved methods can decrease failures and raise the ceiling of student capacity. I am fascinated by research in education but for now all I have are my experiences and education to provide consider this puzzle.
The Purpose of Education
It seems an objective observation that all governments, from tribes to modern nations, must pass on information from one generation to the next. A tribe must teach its youth to hunt and other basics of survival or the elders will starve. In the same way, a modern nation must teach its youth to run a working and sustainable economy or the future elders will suffer. Based on this insight I believe the purpose of education is to prepare youth to be productive citizens. I take it as a fundamental truth that people are most productive when they are happy and it seems that knowledge of something gives one a greater ability to appreciate and enjoy it. Also, a modern nation needs an intelligent workforce. Therefore, allowing students to appreciate the world and providing them with necessary information and and more importantly the reasoning skills are my two goals as a teacher.
The Way People Learn
Part constructivism and part connectivism, I believe that learners create their own meaning behind schema and events and strengthen their meanings through connections to other schema. If it is true that students create their own meaning then it seems most reasonable that the best way to create one’s own meaning is through discovery. It is not realistic for students to discover everything on their own. Newton was a genius for formalizing the theory of gravity and it was his life’s work. What educators can do is guide students to discovery by asking the correct questions. Doing this will take intense study and introspection and the correct questions will vary from student to student because their needs will differ. Some will need to learn how to think and some should be encouraged to struggle through a problem. In each case, a successful teacher will be able to identify the problem and take the correct path to solve the block.
The Ideal Environment
Obviously, people are different than computers and there are other variables in learning besides the way knowledge is transferred and one of the most important is the environment. Some environments harbor anxiety which seems to shut down brain functioning. Most anxiety in school is a fear of failure. My entrepreneurial and athletic background forced me to confront and accept failure head on. I believe that helping students to get over their fear of failure is extremely beneficial and the most important part of creating an environment conducive to learning. I would do this by developing a classroom culture where failure is not feared. I want to lead by example of someone who isn’t afraid to struggle through something new and I want to disclose my history of approaching failure head on. Just as in companies, developing and maintaining a culture requires constant introspection permeating all aspects and will take years to perfect.
Another variable in learning is a students level of engagement. It is extremely difficult to keep students engaged in lecture and to lead students to discovery but it is also difficult to keep twenty students on task when they are separated into seven different independent groups. There is no easy solution but I think maintaining a culture where the students take responsibility for their education will help. Standards Based Grading seems conducive to this and beneficial all around. SBG will teach students that a high level of engagement and metacognition with one item is more powerful than rushing through a number of items for credit. I do not believe that technology is the solution to the engagement problem. I visited an elementary school classroom that had a smartboard and the children were extremely excited about doing tasks with the technology (even when they were the exact same tasks as on paper) but my experience with children is that their level of excitement quickly dies down. However, technology definitely has a place in education.
Technology can help with collaboration, simulation, management, exploration and stimulation and if it is not maximizing one of those categories then it probably more of a problem. I’d bet that spending $2,000 on giving poor students lunch every day would produce much better results than purchasing a smartboard. Although maximizing the effect of technology in terms of the above categories is helpful, technology allows for innovative practices that the above categories miss such as the inverted classroom and online lectures. I am interested in using these methods but my first thoughts are that while I can probably find a better lecturer than myself on the internet, the videos are nothing more than a textbook in a slightly different medium and the inverted classroom and Khan Academy are not the answer to education.
The above outlines how I will run my classroom. As much as possible I want my students to learn by discovery which will mean more group activities and informal experiments. I want to reinforce the idea that failure is an important part of both the scientific method and learning. I want to empower my students to take responsibility for their education and lifelong learning through my classroom culture and I want to use technology to help me achieve my goals.