Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The heretic

I shall horrify everyone in my profession by posting a link to an article that begins:

"Taking notes during class? Topic-focused study? A consistent learning environment? All are exactly opposite of the best strategies for learning."

Go on, brand me a heretic, but I stand by the quotation... especially with regard to the subject of GP. Yup, Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong.

Personal experience failing through high school reinforces my belief that our cherished methods of 'mugging' do not work, or maybe they don't work for everybody. It's not about being naturally lazy, but focused studying narrows the mind and compartmentalizes the learning.

I won't speak for other subjects, but for GP, there are clearly identifiable long-term lifeskill goals beyond the Cambridge exam at the end of the year. While Sundem gives the example of learning for tennis, it applies to GP as well.

Some colleagues of mine demand that the kids capture every word they speak as if every class was a dictation exercise. We all know teachers like that. In GP, the kids are learning to deal with myriad views in a multiciplicity of layers but taking notes of what-teacher-says confines the note-taker to one point of view as if only Teacher is spewing gospel truth. The note-taking mind is not the questioning mind, and kids need to question everything.

I don't agree with topic-based study either. Although I'm not coaching tennis, I do see that ultimately the kids are engaged in a singular activity with rules and boundaries that define it clearly: they are writers. They may be sitting for an exam, but it's an exam that examines written expression primarily, and only supported by loosely defined topical content.

As a tennis player practices a combination of serves, volleys, backhand smashes and the like, writers are also engaged in bringing many skills to bear on their writing task. The demands of such a complex task need lots of practice in a holistic work environment that engages all skills simultaneously. They have to access a milieu of information given as new material, process it together with their prior knowledge, choose a course of action, and systematically show how their minds have worked through the problem to arrive at the conclusion they are trying to convince us of. Their only means of communicating with us: writing -- hence they have to be trained as writers.

That means the kids, when faced with 12 essay question choices should be able to select any one and respond with confidence. Preparing for 'favourite' question topics and pre-selecting for the kids what topics they can and cannot write on puts them at a severe morale disadvantage even before they arrive at their exam venue. Instead of having open, questioning minds, they enter the exam hall with a narrow range of topics they are confident of and question only their own ability to rise to the challenge.

How are the kids supposed to gain content knowledge, then? It's not by setting topical limits on what is expected to 'come out' this year based on 'past year' trends. You'll have equivalent success reading tea leaves and a crystal ball. You have to set them loose where they can access information on current affairs at random, the way we adults read the newspapers. We don't absorb information topically in real life, so we shouldn't expect the kids to do so either.

The kids learn by making connections. Often their own connections may be wrong, but that is where we come in to guide them. A random selection of news articles invariably trace back to common themes, reinforced through discussion either in oral form within large or small groups or in written essays, shared blog entries, forum postings and wikis, among many other methods of communication available to us today. However, any suggestion of a GP 'textbook' will be an anathema to the subject. Kids, being kids, will take such a tome as the only thing they need to read, and cut themselves off from where the real learning is... in the wild.

If we want to ground the kids on a baseline, we should be grounding them with values, not topics. The test is ultimately about making decisions and standing by them. Regardless of topic, we expect the kids to make judgments based on upright principles based on common human decency. When kids have a handle on their personal yardsticks to tell right from wrong, and what is constructive from destructive; when kids can see what constitutes the 'greater good'; when kids can defend their positions from solid moral beliefs; then we will have done our jobs as GP tutors.

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