Friday, April 17, 2009

"A Vision of Students As Accomplished Learners"

Sorry to delay the competition topic yet another day, but I just had to post about the talk I went to tonight while it was still fresh in my mind.

The talk, "How We Learn, and How We Don't" was one of UT's Hot Science--Cool Talks Outreach Lectures, this one by Robert Duke, the Director of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas. He was definitely one of the best of the lecturers we've seen in this series so far. Simply brilliant.

I can't possibly speak to all of the information he talked about, as his lecture was crammed with golden nuggets (not the chicken kind). I was scribbling copious notes as he talked (trying my new technique of taking notes by leaving out the vowels, which really speeds up note taking ... but I digress).

He reinforced what I already firmly believed: that the traditional school system has it all wrong. The brain doesn't work the way that the educational system teaches. It doesn't record information on a tape, to be rewound and played back when we need to access a particular tidbit, or by inserting discrete facts into tidy folders. Instead, it organizes information by association; it's a pattern-seeking machine. 

But teachers don't teach to optimize learning--they can't, because they weren't trained to and aren't allowed to. They're taught to teach according to a schedule, but as the brain doesn't record sequentially, this isn't the best method. They're taught to teach certain facts, even if those facts don't interest them. In fact, one of the least important factors in a teacher's ability to teach, at least in the public school setting, is their knowledge of the subject matter. So we have teachers who aren't necessarily interested in what they're droning on about, who are presenting inform
ation in a method that conflicts with the ability of the brain to store information, and who may not even have that great of a knowledge base of the subject matter. Is it no wonder why our kids lag behind so many other nations in education? And why so many of them hate school? And loathe "learning"? (I use the term loosely here.)

If a subject matter is interesting, according to Duke, it will be remembered. So he has a little checklist for teachers to ask themselves about their teaching style (much like the "Are You Sexy?" checklists you might find in Cosmo, he says).

Are You Interesting?
  --Labels ("Name the parts of the flower.")
  --Recipes ("Follow the instructions for this 'experiment' and if don't get the desired results, you fail.")
  --Algorithms ("When dividing fractions, don't ask why ... flip the sucker and multiply.")
  --What ... ("What causes the compass needle to point north?")
  --Exploration ("Take apart this lightbulb and see where the wires go.")
  --Experimentation ("What's your hypothesis for this experiment? Try it and see what results you get.")
  --Exploration ("I don't know why that is. Why don't we see if we can find out?")
  --How and why ... ("How does this contraption work?")

Another little morsel that I clutched onto was this statement: "Learning is error correction." This meshed perfectly with a heated interlude during a quizzing session I had with 
G the week before his geography bee. It went something like this:

Me: "What's the name of the largest island in the Outer Hebrides?"
G: "Umm. I know this. Uh ... oh, gosh. I know this. GEEZ, I KNOW THIS!"
Me: "Isle of Lewis."
G: Bam, bam, bam (sound of fists hitting carpet) "I KNEW THAT! WHY COULDN'T I REMEMBER THAT?"
Me: "It's okay! Actually, I'm always a little glad when you don't know an answer."
Me: "What good would it do if we only went over stuff you already
 knew? That'd just be a waste of all our time. I'd rather find those holes that we can plug."
G: "Well, that's just stupid, Mom."

Okay, so maybe he sees it as stupid. (Did I mention that he's my competitive one?) But I can be vindicated by Duke's statement that learning is error correction. Yes! Of course, by Duke's definition of learning, G hadn't actually learned that little fact at that point.

According to Duke's definition, I didn't learn anything tonight at the talk. Once I put his ideas into action, I'll have learned, but not until then. Learning is "change in some way that allows us to do something we haven't been able to do before." So unless and until you actually do something with the knowledge--have a discussion, build a device, connect two previously disconnected ideas, create a piece of music--you haven't learned. Interesting.

Another juicy morsel was this: unless you're uncomfortable during learning, you're not learning. I guess that maybe, after all, G did learn something. I mean, for a while there, he was definitely uncomfortable. :) Heck, maybe I was learning too, since I wasn't exactly sitting in the lap of comfort either.

An aside here for mention of a milestone: We were sitting in the front row, center section, as we always do. S raised her hand to answer a simple math question regarding dividing fractions. I was SO proud of her! Not because she was right ... but because she answered a MATH question in public! You can't know what an accomplishment this is for her. We have spent this entire past year trying to overcome her phobia about math, which developed when she attended a part-time school last year. We had been learning math topics in a different order than the kids at the school, so when she didn't know some of the concepts (although she knew others), she had her self-confidence shaken to her bones. It's taken almost a full year for us to get her back to the point of feeling okay with math, and this was thrilling (for a mom, anyway) proof. 

All in all, the evening was a real delight.


  1. I was so proud of S too. Did you see the interaction between her and G then? He tried to tell her something, and she just dismissed him off casually. What a confident kid! You have to get her The Number Devil. Oh wait, we've already talked about that. Arnav was excited for the 1st 1 hour of the talk, easily accepting things he didn't understand. The he suddenly told me "I don't feel prepared for college, this seemshard." I told him "You're 8 years old, for gioodness sakes!" I have to discuss it with him further. When he was not quite 4 years old, he said "I am worried that whe I show up for work at NASA I will not know what to do." His main question after the talk was "What does date mean?" --Deepa

  2. Oh, he said wonderful things about montessori. He said, The kids mess around with their work all day and learn about a concept from many different directions. It's a deep learning. We asked him about the lack of extreme competition in montessori, and he said, "If you have a self-motivated cnfident learner, I see nothing to worry about." Sorry to be monopolizing your comment space these days :).

  3. If you're learning, you'd be uncomfortable, is all he said. He didn't say, if you're uncomfortable, you must be learning! ;) --Deepa

  4. Arghhhhh! I'm with G -- BAM BAM BAM! Banging my fist on the carpet because I totally forgot that I had seen this lecture announced on AAH and forgot about it. I would have loved to go! Sounds amazing! Does this guy have a book? Was the talk recorded?
    (You did a wonderfully thorough job of capturing those golden nonpoultry nuggets, though.)

  5. Camille, You forgot what he said about tests and grades. He said, I believe, that the minute you say you will assess a class on something (with a test or something similar) they become focussed on how to achieve the basic goal of learning as LITTLE as possible, in order to make the garde they want to make in the class. He says it changes the focus right away. The solution of course is something like AMS does - they do STanford Achievement Tests from 3rd grade, but don't hand out the grades - it's just for the teacher to assess the kids.