Learnings and Teachings

My memory is shot. Post-it notes and checklists have become my best friends. Too many things to remember and too little time to remember them in. The memory test began in Grade One, perhaps even before that — we are all treated like data storage units and not the intelligent, adaptive beings we are.

I’ve ranted about this before through other media, to other people, my walls, etc. I have a gripe with our education system, and not just the secondary system. This plague has invaded the post-secondary system too.

What’s my beef? Testing a student’s memory rather than their knowledge.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’ve taught courses, and created and administered exams. I am guilty of this. So, let’s begin with that — why did I do it??

1) Testing on memory is easy.

Case in  point — it’s easy to create an exam of questions like, “Name three characteristics of a Homo erectus skull.” It’s also easy to mark. Ah. It’s nice to spend only two hours marking exams instead of twelve.

2) Material that is easily regurgitated is easy to present.

Case in point — it’s easy to stand up and present the three characteristics of a Homo erectus skull. Ah. It’s nice to only spend two hours pulling together a lecture presentation instead of creating a reading list every week.

In short, I took the easy way out. Most do. Did I learn anything during my academic career if this is the norm for both teaching and learning? Only during my seminars. Why? I was made to think in seminars.

Let’s reassess the above:

1) Testing on memory is easy, testing on knowledge is more difficult. In my seminars, I was asked, “Why are the morphological differences in the skulls Homo erectus and Homo habilis important for understanding human evolution?” Suddenly the three characteristics of an erectus skull seemed trite; there was a deeper underlying issue I needed to ferret out.

2) Repeatable material is easily presentable, getting students to think about the *why* of a situation is more difficult. In my seminars, I was encouraged to ask why are these characteristics important, how are they measured, why are they measured, should we be using other characteristics, etc.

This *knowledge* prepared me for research and for living in the real world. I question everything now and possess a desire to know the process behind what I see and encounter. I have re-become the annoying two-year old child who asks, “Why?” all the time. The plus side is that now I understand more.

Example #1 — a small light turns on and a sound is emitted by the walk button when a person touches the button to cross the street. Why? To let the person know, deaf or blind, that the button has, indeed, been activated. I understand this. However, others don’t. Despite these visual and auditory measures, people refuse to engage in the mental link between light/sound and activation, and continue to press the button. Repeatedly. Often. Quickly. More. Faster.

Perhaps an instruction manual would help. With pictures.

Example #2 — indicator lights on vehicles are meant to be used. I understand this because I know I can’t read minds. Critical analysis of the situation would uncover that one would need a way to communicate a change of lanes or direction when in an enclosed vehicle or doing speeds over 50 kph. Speech is quite difficult in these situations; big, messy vehicular collisions are quite easy. However, people insist on not using their indicators.

Perhaps the person they’re texting knows the driver is changing lanes.

Moral of this post? Think things through. Memory will only get you so far.

……now if only our education system can figure that out.

One response to “Learnings and Teachings

  1. Even with our advances in understanding how the brain works and how we really learn, it’s surprising to me (or is it?) that we’re still taught mostly according to the ’empty vessel’ approach, where the student is a passive learner and the teachers imparts the wisdom of the ages. The U of C was trying to bring about a ‘revolution’ in teaching a few years back (when I took my B. Ed) but I’m not sure how far that movement has gotten so far. To succeed in education–at least here in Alberta–it is much easier to embrace the status quo.

    Anyway, great post and I look forward to the next one. By the way, have you read The Shallows, by Carr? It’s a pretty interesting read, and not altogether unrelated. I blogged about it a few months ago: http://www.derekdonais.com/?p=406.

    Enjoy your weekend!



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