Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Need for some 'Big Picture' Exposure in Education

I am glad to see posts such as the recent one by the Drs. Eide, entitled "The Paradigm Shift for Big Picture Thinking." They argue for, and I agree entirely, that:

"Instead of training for compliance, careful rule-following, and exact memorization or a paragon of crystallized intelligence, we need to make more room for 'big picture' thinkers - while still recognizing the need for basic skills and knowledge."

When I talk with students (juniors and seniors in high school) about how different subjects and classes are taught, invariably it comes down to great amounts of memorization. Most students, when you engage them in real conversations about the education they receive, will open up freely and get right to the point...because of the continued emphasis on grades and GPAs by colleges, students feel the need to focus first on memorization and get the grade on the test, and then move on to the next topic without much concern with what was just studied. When this is the case in school, has true learning just occurred? Likely not, if students are unable to recall and actually apply concepts that were covered in the past. I personally would love to change my job title from 'teacher' to 'learning facilitator,' or something similar. Teaching happens everyday in every classroom. But if student learning does not take place, what is the point? Teaching and learning are not the same thing, and I for one want the latter over the former!

To make matters worse, as students rely so heavily on memorization and short-term success on tests (and this is driven home even more in the 'high stakes testing' environment we find ourselves in in the era of No Child Left Behind, as resently implemented), those students, many of whom are gifted, as the Eides point out, who prefer complexity in their learning, are not benefitting from the way many (most) classrooms are run. By complexity, I mean those students who want to 'see the big picture.' Those students who want to know why something works, and how it is related to the material that was studied last semester as well as to the material that was covered in another class. For example, I love when students in my physics classes come to me asking about how to interpret and apply a particular integral result which was just studied in calculus class, or how Einstein's theories changed political and military history, as studied in a history course. Those moments happen every so often, as a result of student curiosity and their wanting to truly learn about the material rather than memorize something for the test, and good teachers recognize such moments when they happen...that is what I want school and the education process to be like for every student. I guarantee we (i.e. society) will be the beneficiaries if we can figure out how to do this systemically.

How can change, or the paradigm shift the Eides are referring to, like this occur? I still firmly believe it won't ever happen until we get state boards of education together with teaching colleges and work together to change how teachers are trained. They need to be taught in this manner in the colleges so they have practical, real-world models to think about and employ when in the classroom, rather than the enormous amount of theoretical psychology that has been in traditional certification programs (and which I personally have never used in an actual classroom). Master teachers of this strategy need to be the ones to work staff development sessions rather than outside consultants who are preaching the traditional single-topic methodologies I think we should be using, but together with other methodologies (example: I've been to how to use phonics sessions, and how to use whole language sessions - I have yet to go to a session that gets teachers thinking about and trained in how to use the best of phonics and the best of whole language to get the most bang for the buck). Teachers need to learn how to do more coordinated team-teaching so kids are exposed to the interplay between math-science-reading-writing-history-art-technology.

Too many students are missing out on seeing the 'big picture' of what they study, and therefore have a difficult time in answering the question every student asks at some point, and that is - What is the point? of what I was just shown in class. This is then the lead to the next question - What is the point of school itself? We owe it to them to be able to answer this question, as more and more educators are unable to provide a good answer.

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