Thursday, September 17, 2009

Slowing Down

I am grateful that we've gotten through this week, with the the readings from the National Academy volume and Bruner's book, for we now have the right language to talk about our own learning issues and how the class functions. So I believe we recognize that for deep learning students need to understand the underlying structure of the situation. The discussion on that point went well yesterday.

I thought the discussion about rote learning and drill was less sharp, which is why I introduced some examples other than arithmetic (more on this in a bit). There was some agreement that too much drill can end up masking a search to find the underlying structure. I'm sure we all agree. I also believe we mentioned, but I'm less sure we all agreed, that some drill is useful. (And if not drill what instead?) The issue is that the learner needs to become familiar with the situation before the structure can be identified. In what other ways can the learner become familiar with the situation?

Some of the early student reflections from this week suggested the becoming familiar issue was a concern with the readings for the course and that as a result of the lack of familiarity students are not seeing the connections between the readings and the discussion in class. They are wondering whether they shouldn't use their reflections to blog about the readings in advance of the class discussion. From where I sit, that's a fine thing to do.

But I wonder what would be done instead if we didn't have the weekly reflections requirement for the course. Students would still need to get familiar with the readings. How would they do that? And what checks would they put in place for themselves to establish they are sufficiently familiar? What I'm really asking about here is habits of mind. Is there a routine you go through to get familiar with what you are reading, going through a mental checklist, if you will, of steps to take to establish the requisite comfort with the subject matter?

In class we have something of a routine at this point. I pose a question to elicit your responses about some experience. Students give their responses and we see if there is concurrence or disagreement with those. When there is concurrence, I try to distill some lesson, a part of the structure we're trying to identify. That is a conjecture based on the discussion. The distillation has to be consistent with the experience you describe.

But in our routine we are not yet testing that conjecture in some other circumstance that we haven't yet discussed. And we are not yet asking whether the conjecture is consistent with the readings. We probably should do both. I believe doing so would give students in the class a feeling of standing on firmer ground with the ideas under discussion. But to achieve this, we''ll have to cover less. There doesn't seem any other alternative to me.

I should also note that in the first part, where I elicit your responses, I have some guess as to what you'll say, but I do not know for sure. So it is a challenge to allow the flexibility that you want in giving your responses and being able to tie those immediately into the readings. I need some time to reflect on that myself to establish the connections. So perhaps we also need to better tie one class session into the next, where part of one is an early exploration and part of the next is making ties to that. I wonder if that structure might not be better than what we have now, where we pretty much wrap things ups by the end of class, with some important connections not being made.

Returning to the issue of habits of mind, I believe that most if not all of you need to form new habits of the following sort. If we think we've identified structure then that structure should apply in multiple contexts and one way to validate that our conjecture about structure is correct is to generate additional contexts that seem parallel and see if the conjecture applies well in those new circumstances. So part of the process is generating other contexts and going through this text. I believe you need to develop a habit where it becomes instinctual for you to do that. If you did that while you were reading, then there might not be a need to blog about it to get the familiarity that is needed. Until the habit takes hold, however, blogging about it might be a good way to establish the habit, with only occasional refreshes necessary thereafter.

Blogging about the reading without going through the exercise of generating contexts and testing structure with them, may be less beneficial for this purpose. My fear is that you will treat the reading as a thing unto itself (which is how my former students used to treat their intermediate microeconomics textbook) instead of as an aid for considering real world phenomena.

Yesterday in class the discussion couldn't get past the arithmetic example. It is a good and powerful context for making the points about structure and rote learning. But it is only one context.

As a teacher I want you to maintain your individuality and learn to fully express yourself, accounting for your personal strengths and interests. But in some small ways I want you to imitate me. Developing a habit to generate multiple contexts as you consider the structure of a situation is one of those. If you end up doing that I will be flattered and, intellectually, the course will have accomplished a great deal.

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