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Implications for schools
Q: What is a teacher's job?
Principles to consider:
- Teachers cannot transmit knowledge to learners.
- Learning is a dynamic process of building and rebuilding new neural networks.
- Performance depends on context.
- Students need to learn to create contexts to support their own learning.
- Skills tend not to be isolated abilities learned in a linear fashion but webs of interrelated abilities.
- Learning new skills and concepts depends on coordinating more basic skills to form increasingly complex skills.
- Regression is essential to learning.
Teachers cannot transmit knowledge to learners. Knowledge isn't an object that can be passed on or held. The idea that concepts are skills that need to be built and rebuilt is fundamentally different from the idea that concepts are static things that can be placed in our memory for future use. Although memorization may sometimes be useful, it cannot substitute for building the neural pathways that create understanding. So, the student's job is the building, or the learning. The teacher's job is to create the conditions that support learning. If we think of schools as contexts for learning instead of places for teaching, we might effectively imagine new approaches not only to the classroom, but also to all aspects of schools—the physical and social, the policies and practices, the attitudes and metaphors. We need to replace the language of teaching with the language of learning.
Whether we can do something depends on the context in which we do it; whether we know something depends on the context in which we think it. In a world preoccupied with assessment—a world in which grades are the coin of the realm, traded for access to colleges and the jewels of capitalism—teachers need to consider carefully exactly what they assess and what factors have produced the test, lab, or essay in front of them. Let's look back at the essays on Andrew Jackson written by Judy and Bob.
Each essay emerged from a different web of skills that resulted in different approaches to the problem of making sense of Jackson's policies, an assignment that the teacher left typically vague—"Write a paper on Andrew Jackson and discuss the significance of his policies when he was president." Judy's essay was quite analytical and looked at economic policies and their effect on subsequent events. Bob was more interested in the man himself. Bob discovered significance in Jackson's policies as a reflection of character. It would be nice to believe that the teacher could see the merit in both approaches, but the teacher, too, brings a web of skills and a way of looking at the world (too often unexamined) and probably had an ideal essay in mind. The grades of the two students will likely reflect the interaction of the teacher's web and the students' webs, and Bob might not fare as well as Judy.
Other factors will also affect the quality of the two essays and the perception of the quality. How developmentally ready are Bob and Judy to write an essay of this complexity? What level of performance is each capable of under supportive conditions in each of the skills required to produce such an essay? Has the teacher consciously identified those skills and helped Bob and Judy identify them? How developed is each student in terms of making conceptual links between and among the more basic skills embedded in the larger skill of writing a research paper in history? Has the teacher aligned his expectations with the contexts in which Judy and Bob worked and helped those (top)
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students learn to build supportive contexts for themselves?
Another critical job for teachers is to help students learn to create for themselves the conditions that support their own learning. For example, Laura Moore, an English teacher in Massachusetts, has worked for years helping students to become "attuned to their own writing process, to become increasingly aware of it, and to become adept at manipulating it, an effect which is achieved through daily self-assessment, introspection, and reflection. I tell them to pay attention to how, when and where they do their work; what kind of work they do in those conditions; and the successes and failures of that use of time. Some students find they write best in the early mornings or in the afternoons, in the back of the library, or late at night at Barnes & Noble." See article, "Student-as-Text: A Sustainable Philosophy for the 21st Century English Curriculum: Timeless Lessons in the Fully-Examined Life."
Frequently, students with some sort of diagnosed learning difficulty have been taught to ask a teacher for certain "accommodations" that will enable them to perform successfully. They understand their own brain, understand their need for more time, a quiet place to work, or a certain structure that will help them complete a long, complex assignment. Many adults eventually learn what conditions support their best work. In fact, some adults have learned to create scaffolds for themselves: They let spell-check recognize errors that they are unable to see for themselves; they let the computer voice read documents to them; or they design organizational templates to use whenever they tackle a large project. Schools might profitably spend more time helping all students explore, discover, and create the conditions that enable them to do their best work.
Perhaps the largest ethical issue is the challenge of how to grade regression. Although this cycle of moving forward and backward and forward is the natural rhythm of learning, many teachers perceive regression as failure and a source of personal frustration. For the most part, grading systems reflect the traditional models of education, which do not take into account productive regression. If assessment is continuous rather than just an end-point to mark that learning has occurred, regression becomes natural and expected, and a learner's skills can be assessed in a more process-oriented way.
The new models of cognitive development—the web, the connection between performance and context, the tiers of development from reflexes to abstractions, the more basic skills connected and nested within more complex skills, and the necessity of regression—are rich in implications for schools, but fundamentally they suggest that learning is slow and hard. It takes time. The old linear models—the ladder, the isolated skills, knowledge as objects stacked in memory boxes, performance as a steady rise regardless of context, and teachers talking—imply that learning can move along pretty quickly and that everyone can move at pretty much the same rate. The clash between these models presents exciting opportunities for rethinking how schools manage and use time.
Finally, it's essential to remember that, although we are looking at cognitive aspects of learning in this unit, emotion remains an equally critical factor. Research into the processes of learning suggests that learners must do the work of learning, the hard work of building neural networks. At the same time, we know that people tend to work hard only when the work matters to them, a trait that reminds us that cognitive development must always be considered in the context of the emotional goals it serves.