Friday, June 20, 2008

Teachers and the Quest for Meaningful Pedagogy

A fellow student in class just asked me a question in response to a discussion we were having about Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. Here is the relevant tail-end of my initial post:

"Finally, I think that teachers should emphasize imaginative literature that forces such moral questions upon the characters and upon the reader, so that children can begin to understand what certain choices mean, and can begin to place themselves in others' shoes when viewing moral disagreements."

An excerpt from the well-reasoned response I was given is as follows:

"...I can appreciate your opinion that students can be presented with imaginative literature that poses moral dilemmas that encourage them to understand consequences of choices and will also help them to learn empathy for the plight of others who have to deal with moral dilemmas. The whole concept of helping students learn to think instead of just presenting a set of facts for them to memorize and pass a test is certainly a more challenging task for educators, but a concept that will spill over into all areas of learning." [emphasis mine]

This got me to thinking. Is it a more challenging task for educators? Learning to teach the high-school way, or, I guess, the education-degree way, has been daunting for me, used to the college way of teaching: lecture, discussion, essay. The repetition, memorization, and testing of material seems so baroque, so antiquated. And, I must admit, I always had the niggling feeling of "college is better," even though college teachers don't for the most part receive actual instruction in, you know, pedagogy. Still, I say, why bother with all that? Aren't US high schools very poorly ranked, and yet US universities very highly ranked? Sure--but if teaching is a skill, it can be taught, it can be learned. As long as we don't get too caught up in the old ways of doing things. And a lot of education theorists we've discussed agree. Here's my response to my classmate:

"The thing is, though, that I don't know if it is more of a challenge. We learn easier if we have a meaningful connection to our learning. That "meaningful connection" can be seeing something useful, as we see things in this class that helps us in the classes we teach, but that "meaningful connection" can also be a connection that provides, allows, strengthens meaning. Across the board you'll find that straight memorization fails most of the time: students commit something to memory, test over it, forget it, and then have nothing to build on for the next test. Because they're not interested, because they aren't forced to think, evaluate, decide, they have no connection to what they're learning. On the other hand, if we can get our students interested in something by showing just how cool or weird or interesting it is, the students on their own look for it.

And I don't really think that's challenging for educators. We wouldn't be doing anything harder. Because this is the way humans naturally learn things for themselves, we don't have to work as hard past the initial point of engagement. The biggest obstacle is getting kids interested in learning in general, and after that, showing them that one particular area, whether it's math or science or 1870s century German poetry, is fascinating when you get right down to it.

This style doesn't involve making giant lists of things to discuss. It primarily uses essay questions, not true/false, matching, or fill-in-the-blank. And instead of lecture-response, class discussions often bring about greater truths than one single teacher can provide. The problem with it is that it's anathema, completely the opposite of how a lot of people think of teaching, of what teaching should be, because with all the subjectivity, there's a certain lack of objectivity, the source of all grading and evaluation. But I would willingly sacrifice easy-to-determine grades for authentic learning any day of the week."

I stand by that. We in university need to learn pedagogy--skills to actually help our students learn. Especially in testing methods, for crying out loud--true/false tests are patently lousy, by almost anybody's judgment. But those in high school need to learn as well that some methods don't actually work, and they're only the easiest methods because they're the ones that people already know. Teaching can be easier through guided class discussions, even though testing is harder through grading essays. I'm fine with the tradeoff: less mind-numbing lecture, more exploration of personal relevance and meaning.

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