What follows if my final paper for a class called Teaching & Learning that I took during the 2009 winter semester at Bennington College.
Learning about learning has so far been a mind-opening experience. I am studying to become a social sciences teacher, though education is really a social science in itself. Actually, it has such mathematic complexity, scientific precision, and generally eclectic methods that has thus far been an entirely unique major.
Foremost, learning about learning is a personal venture. How did I learn to speak, but fail at learning any second language? Why do I still hesitate at taking a strictly science or math course? Why do I think that I can't do anything, despite relative academic success?
How do I use the answers to these questions to the advantage of my students?
Node your Homework
On Relevance in Education
What the student learns must be relevant to him. He should be encouraged to make connections between what is learned in the classroom and the experiences of his daily activities. This real-world context allows for the student to reflect upon the application of what he learns in the classroom. Carol Rodgers describes this reflection as a meaning-making process that moves the learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. (845 Rodgers)
One role of the teacher is to rouse this sort of reflection when it is appropriately related to the class material. When the student integrates his own interests and musings into class projects and discussions, the teachers should take his ideas seriously and motivate him to build upon them.
I will give several examples of this. First, the student should be able to make connections between his personal interests and musings: if he likes graphic novels or songwriting, his English course might allow him to study those forms of narrative. If he is interested in sports, then his anatomy course should allow him to explore the basic concepts of sports nutrition. Should he be interested in computer programming, than his math course should let him incorporate introductory logic or number theory.
These are all examples of how a student’s pastimes and hobbies could be integrated into different subjects in a constructive manner. They demonstrate what Thomas Zane calls ‘domain definition’, by “defining real-world, integrated tasks as opposed to listing a series of content topics or decontextualized knowledge components” (83 Zane, Part 1). The ‘domains’ essential to student-relevant education are those that the student thinks are important to him.
Unfortunately, it would be impossible to structure a curriculum that is specialised to each student’s personal ‘domain’. If a teacher attempted to create such a course, she would be quickly overwhelmed. Instead of rigidly incorporating them, the class should feature discussions and assignments flexible enough to allow the integration of different domains of student interest.
This kind of education benefits the student in at least two ways. First, he is able to reflect upon course material using personal experience. He is more likely to be interested in what is being taught, because the material is more relevant to him. Secondly, he is able to supplement his extracurricular interests with the knowledge that he learns in class. By making connections between what he learns in the classroom and outside of it, he has the opportunity not only to build upon his understanding of class material, but also of his own recreations and passions. This should be one of the primary purposes of teaching and learning: to build upon the students’ existing experience and curiosity to provide a practically grounded and relevant education.
Transferability of Knowledge
Just as a curriculum that is narrow and decontextualised is impractical, one that exclusively involves the students’ hobbies and pastimes is also limiting. What is learned in school should not be constrained in application; it should be ensured that whatever the student is learning, that he is able to apply it to multiple domains.
For instance: when I attended public middle school, my course on U.S. history was taught in a “drill-and-kill” manner. It was the sort of course that involved memorising predetermined lists of names and dates, and then regurgitating them for quizzes. This teaching method had two main problems: firstly, there was no attempt to make it relevant to the current state of America; history was as separate from reality as any fiction. Just as bad, the names and dates we learned were of no obvious use outside of the classroom. The students had little ability to use the information to study other aspects of American history; they were exclusive to the lesson at hand.
History should not be taught as a series of isolated, decontextualised events. This is what Paulo Freire calls “banking”, which allows the students only to memorise and sort information so that it can be reproduced upon demand (Freire 58). There is no emphasis placed on the ability to transfer knowledge from one application to another, which can help the student to “create new knowledge and arrive at further understandings” (40 Wiggins). In the context of U.S. History, transferability might mean the ability to relate past events to current politics or to American literature.
The importance of transferability extends outside the realm of social sciences. In English, a student might learn the functions of different parts of speech; but he will not be able to improve his sentence structure with this knowledge unless he can use it appropriately. Analogously, a student of mathematics may be able to solve simple algebraic problems with fractions, but that does not guarantee his ability to execute more complex operations with dimensional analysis.
Transferability of knowledge is essential to relevant education. Without it, the student is not able to take what he learns in the classroom and apply it to his extracurricular interests; or vise versa. However, it is a more difficult task to ensure that the student is focused and motivated enough to take interest in transferring his understanding to begin with.
Teacher and Student Responsibilities
By upholding personal relevance and transferability as core tenants of education, a large degree of responsibility is placed upon the student’s ability and eagerness to learn. The tenants assume that the student is mature enough to take his education seriously and to challenge himself. The ideal student is self-motivated in fulfilling his own curiosity. He is developed enough in his thought to appropriately make connections between class content and personal interest. In essence, a relevance-centered education requires that the he is self-aware enough to realise his ability, talent, and limits; and to know when to ask the teacher for assistance.
Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect a student to have all of these skills when they first enter the classroom; the ability to learn is developed over time. Because of this, the teacher must not only teach the class material, but also help the student to grasp it. In Freedom To Learn, psychologist Carl Rogers describes the aim of education as the facilitation of learning (120-121 Rogers). In order to facilitate learning, the teacher has two core responsibilities: to evoke and guide the students’ desire to learn, and to provide guidance and resources to help them do so.
In order to motivate the students, the teacher must demonstrate the appeal of the class content to them. She may accomplish this by showing them how the material is relevant to the students’ domains of interest. The teacher should attempt to appeal to as many of the students’ domains as possible, and not favour one any over another (unless there is a general class consensus, or it is otherwise appropriate). One method of doing this would be group interaction: and exercise might be to allow the students to bandy ideas and concepts in guided class discussion. She may also assign creative projects and see what work the students produce. Through these activities, the teacher may assess the students’ domains of interest.
The teacher must not only recognise these domains, but also try to understand how the students are attempting to solve them. This does not require that the teacher make lengthily records and descriptions of student behaviour for reference; rather, she should keep a mental tab of their emotional and intellectual abilities. With this in mind, she is better able to understand her students without overburdening herself with work. Nel Nodding describes how she attempts to engross herself completely in the student’s mindset when helping them:
If I care about students who are attempting to solve a problem, I must do two things: I must make the problem my own, receive it intellectually, immerse myself in it; I must also bring the students into proximity, receive such students personally. (659 Goldstein)
By caring for her students’ learning styles and domains of interest, the teacher can help nurture their desire to learn.
Methods of Teaching
The teacher’s other core responsibility—to provide guidance and resources for students when they need them—includes ensuring that they have mastered fundamental concepts necessary for progressing toward more complex ideas. Automaticity, the ability to effortlessly recall material gained from practise, “frees space in the student’s working memory, which can be used for application and higher-level thinking” (64 Rosenshine). This automaticity is lauded in Direct Instruction as “perfect practise”, which stresses the necessary “accuracy, fluency, endurance, momentum, retention, and maintenance” (21 Kuzioff) of the fundamental concepts in a given subject. Automaticity is in itself a resource that is present in the student, and as a resource, the teacher should encourage its cultivation.
In my experience as a student, acquiring automaticity is difficult due to the concentration and practise required to develop it. This is especially problematic when the set of skills or knowledge being learned is decontextualised. For this reason, it is important for the teacher to make the students aware of the application of what is being learned, its necessity in furthering the class, and its relationship to other concepts. For example, memorising the organelles of animal and plant cells in biology often seems a rote and meticulous task. The teacher should explain to the students some of the benefits of having such knowledge, and how it relates to larger operations such as cellular respiration, homeostasis, or photosynthesis. Keeping these in mind, and the material relevant and applicable, they should be related back to when automatising knowledge of the organelles.
These lower-level concepts should serve as Vygotskian tools for understanding larger ones. Once they have been internalised by the student, critical comprehension and application may be instigated. It is at this point that the teacher must pay special attention to the students’ individual learning abilities and interests, so that she may begin to cater to them. Her expectations and input should be gauged upon her knowledge of the students, so that she can provide appropriate assignments and feedback. In Relational Zone, Lisa Goldstein concisely articulates this:
“Each child brings a particular set of skills and interests to bear on any given problem. The adult has particular responsibility for segmenting the tasks into subgoals manageable for that specific child and for altering the child’s definition of the task to make it increasingly compatible with expert performance.” (661 Goldstein)
In order to provide appropriate feedback to students, teachers must fulfill another role: to either have expert knowledge of the subject of study, or the readiness and eagerness to develop existing knowledge of the subject in a classroom setting. A teacher who does not know her material, or does not care about it, cannot help students engage themselves in the material; nor can she break the information down into less complex parts. In Lee Sculman’s theoretical framework of Pedagogical Content Knowledge, teaching “includes presenting the material by using figurative language and metaphors” (Teacher’s) and thereby representing it in ways more accessible to students. Furthermore, this representation of material should be in accordance with popular domains of interest to the class, when it is possible to transform the content in such a way without distorting it.
Of course, the way a subject is taught is dependent on the subject itself. Obviously, mathematics cannot be taught in entirely the same way as anthropology. The teacher must know their subject well enough to realise the differences between content taught, so that they can best adapt their teaching methods.
Most subjects studied in school should have a wide range of application and allow students to interact with their world as informed people. Studies of special or limited appeal—such as classes in music, psychology, or programming—should also be made available, based upon student and teacher interest.
The former category of content studied, classes that are less specialised, includes topics ubiquitous in our society. They should be taught with an emphasis on the aformentioned virtues of broad application and relevance to the students. Mathematics, especially pre-calculus levels that are used in everyday experiences (and are the fundaments upon which higher-level mathematics are based), is an essential subject of study. English, with an emphasis on literacy and critical comprehension, similarly allows students to apply build understanding on their own. Science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, provide general information that students can use to study more complex topics about how the world works.
Special interest subjects which appeal to more limited student appeal and application are beneficial for at least two reasons. Firstly, they demonstrate the usefulness of more common subjects. Game theory, logic, and programming can all represent commonly used mathematics in practice; poetry, style, and culture-specific literature classes may utilise knowledge and skills taught in general English courses; economics, ecology, psychology, and art history combine disciplines. Secondly, they can demonstrate new applications of broader students, which students may not be aware of.
Humanities represent a unique category of study, because they are often attached to social values and interests. These connotations make them subject more open to interpretation. For this reason, I believe that they are central to the student’s fluency in society-wide affairs. The students’ domain of interest has the potential to extent to social impact in the humanities, and it should be taught with emphasis on moderated class dialogue.
Cultivating Social Readiness
An important role of education is to cultivate social readiness. This can, like the purpose of education, be defined in many different ways. Many philosophical thinkers have pronounced education as essential to a just and democratic society. John Dewey believed that “only by the being true to the full growth of all of the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself” (7 Dewey Decimal SystemDewey). Paulo Freire’s thoughts follow a similar vein, but in the context of uneducated lower classes. He wrote “problem-posing education is revolutionary futurity” (72 Freire), as critical comprehension of society’s workings is necessary to change it.
Others, who uphold a more traditional understanding of "socialisation," feel that traditional school subjects should be “the means by which the culture of the race would be transmitted to the vast majority of Americans” (15 Kliebard). Groups representing social interests often push to see them represented in school curriculum—proponents of Intelligent Design are one example of such groups. Another example of teaching beliefs in the classroom would be selective history often exhibited in U.S. History textbooks, such as the omission of discussion of controversial conditions survived by African-Americans and Native Americans. It is debatable how appropriate it is to teach beliefs and morals this way in school.
Decisions made about what content is appropriate should be made with ideologies of the school community in mind. Decisions concerning social and moral education should be chosen by the school so that they represent its students as fairly as possible. For instance, if the majority of the student base consists of Native Americans, teaching the history of indigenous Americas and influence of colonisation would be more suitable than teaching only about the story of the Europeans. Similarly, teaching only Intelligent Design to students in a mixed-religion community would not be appropriate. Such decisions over what to teach should be made based upon the preferences of both the community (students, parents) and the school’s faculty and administration. Subjects should be chosen to coincide with the ideology of the community, without limiting the applicability and relevance of subjects taught.
Schools should provide an environment that allows students to fit into their immediate society and encourages their participation within it. The former requirement would require teachers to dedicate time to developing students' abilities to interact with one another: ideally, students should work together in manner that is both amiable and academically rewarding. With careful preparation, this can be accomplished creatively in the classroom, by using structured collaborative projects, moderated debates, as well as discussion groups that encourage critical analysis of material. Outside of the classroom, extracurricular activities of student interest should allow further socialisation between students.
To help students grow into participating members of their societies, their education should inform students about the kind of world in which they live. Some basic example of this would be: developing a critical understanding of how laws are passed (both in theory and practise), an understanding of different cultures which are prominent in the students' lives, and the sceptical analysis of the students' own values. All of these should be executed with immense respect for the students' personal beliefs, but should nonetheless be thought-provoking exercises.
This method of teaching humanities, which combines social readiness, is one that cannot easily be graded on a linear scale. It cannot value any one student’s beliefs over another, nor should any other subject. Assessment in education must be of help the student, not judge them.
Role of Assessment
The student’s grade should not necessarily reflect how many answers he got wrong or right on his tests or how his projects compared to the rest of his class; instead, they should be a measurement of the progress he has made over the course of his education. This means that the teacher must initially assess the student’s typical work output at the beginning of classes, to use as a reference point for progress made during the course. Additionally, each time a new subject is begun in class, the teacher should try to obtain some idea of the students’ initial abilities at comprehending it, what Popham refers to as pretest data (14 Popham).
Take for example a high school level English classroom. The first few tests given in reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary should be paid particular attention to. If the student has trouble with reading comprehension, or using and appropriate, ‘academic’ style in papers, the teacher should make a mental note of this (or brief notes on paper, if her class is particularly large or her student’s handicaps specific).
When grading, it is useful to divide the assignments into two categories: first, those which are free-form and open ended, such as creative projects, papers, and presentations; and second, those which test for automaticity of core skills and knowledge such as spelling and vocabulary words, appropriate grammar use, and where or not the student has done reading assignments. The former category should be graded based subjectively upon the student’s progress and ability; the latter should be graded in a standard manner, with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ answers. Grades should focus on helping the student realise what his proficiencies are, and what things he may study in order to improve his work.
While organising my thoughts on education and attempting to compile a personal philosophy out of them, I have realised a few things. Most importantly, I now recognise that a philosophy education cannot be rigidly structured. It must incorporate the ideas of many different thinkers; and it cannot be exclusively bound to neither traditional nor progressive ideas. The method of teaching which is practised should always be appropriate based on many different variables, such as what is content is being taught, the classroom atmosphere, and of course, the students’ personalities and learning styles.
Unfortunately, the teacher can only do so much to cater to her students individually. Students must eventually learn to be self-reliant, treating the teacher as a resource. For this to happen, it is important that a general atmosphere that encourages enthusiasm of the subject matter be maintained, one that is conducive to learning. Once this is done, the teacher can appropriately work her students’ interests and ideas, and help them develop both in school and independently of it. It is critical that the students see the importance of learning both inside and outside of the classroom.
Dewey, John. The School and Society & The Child and the Curriculum. BN, 2008. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1986. Print.
Goldstein, Lisa S. "The Relational Zone: The Role of Caring Relationships in the Co-Construction of Mind." American Educational Research
Journal 36.3 (1999): 647-73. Print.
James., Popham, W. Test Better, Teach Better The Instructional Role of Assessment. Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum
Deve, 2003. Print.
Kliebard, Herbert M. Struggle of the American Curriculum 1893-1958. 2nd ed. Routledge, 1995. Print.
Kuzioff, Martin. "Direct Instruction: Its Contributions to High School Achievement." High School Journal 84 (2001): 54. Print.
Kuzioff, Martin, Louis LaNunziata, James Cowardin, and Frances Bessellieu. "Direct Instruction: Its Contributions to High School
Achievement." High School Journal 84 (2001): 54. Print.
R., Rogers, Carl. Freedom to Learn: a view of what education might become. Columbus, Ohio: C. E. Merrill Pub. Co., 1969. Print.
Rodgers, Carol. "Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking." Teachers College Record 104.4 (2002): 842-66. Print.
Rosenshine, Barak V. "Synthesis of Research on Explicit Teaching." Educational Leadership April (1986): 60-69. Print.
"Teacher's In-Depth Content Knowledge." InTime. 2001. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding By Design. 2nd ed. ASCD, 2005. Print.
Zane, Thomas W. "Performance Assessment Design Principles Gleaned from Constructivist Learning Theory." TechTrends 53.1 (2009): 81-88. Print.