Friday, January 14, 2011

Shortchanging Learning

The last two days of professional development at times reminded me of when I was a kid and going to church every Sunday with my family. I remember many nice things about going to church, but at the same time, there were huge contradictions that left me struggling with questions of my faith. Our professional development over the two days have focused on the research of effective instructional design. Instruction that is designed with the focus squarely on the student and their learning. There were a lot of great ideas, such as emphasizing lessons that are designed to provide the student with a clear idea of the learning objective or learning goal; the use of graphic organizers to cement declarative knowledge; and tips for effectively using rubrics for student assessment and feedback. However, at times, especially when discussing the research on declarative knowledge, I found myself back in a church pew as a teenager, trying to decipher the logic behind what the priest was stating in his sermon.

Let me explain. For this particular workshop, the presenter had broken down instruction into two different categories, declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge in simple terms is knowledge based on facts, details, concepts, and principles. Procedural knowledge is knowledge based on processes or skills, for example, how you probably learned to do long division. During the workshop, one of my “church pew” moments came when the facilitator was providing an example of a strategy to help teach declarative new knowledge. The presenter asked us if we could name all thirteen of the original United States colonies. I had been taking notes on my iPad and I immediately typed out the question into Google and almost before she had the words out of her mouth, I had multiple listings of the correct answer in my browser. She proceeded to demonstrate the use of a mnemonic device and spent the next eight to ten minutes creating a whimsical story about a cow using the beginning word parts of each of the thirteen original colonies. Was her strategy successful? Sure. There were some who could remember the story, and then recite the state names. But that’s not my point. Some people could argue that having students memorizing a whimsically story in order for them to recite the first thirteen colonies is not very useful learning. But that’s not my point either. My point is that we are using a tool for learning that would have been useful for students in 1776. It worked then, and it still works today, but it’s completely outmoded by the technology that we as adults use day in and day out. Mnemonic devices are a tool for the memorization of facts, concepts, details, and principles. Technology, search engines, and the web are tools for learning declarative knowledge too. The technology tools are much more efficient tools than those such as mnemonic devices. How many times this week have you used a mnemonic device to remember something in your work? How may times have you used your computer to look something up in your work?

I am afraid if we use the example above and multiply that by everything we are required to teach students, we are wasting a ton of time. In terms of the end result, reciting the original thirteen colonies, whether you use a mnemonic device or a search engine, the end results are the same, with one exception. If you use the search engine you’ll have banked approximately nine minutes to teach something else. Communities that recognize this fact potentially have the ability to increase student learning exponentially just in the fact that they have more time for real learning. Real learning that focuses students on the “whys” and “how comes?” Learning that requires students to think, form opinions and test out their ideas and opinions on each other. Does it really matter that students can recite all thirteen original colonies, or is it more important for them to understand what those thirteen colonies stand for? If we continue to use outmoded tools, I’m afraid we will have no time for the learning that matters most, the “whys” and the “how comes.” What do you think?

(Creative Commons image courtesy of isforinsects on

1 comment:

pablohunny said...

Excellent post. It also makes me think of another issue: it's often debated that we teach students how to pass exams rather than how to make a valuable contribution to society (I'm pretty sure that was the original idea behind schooling poorer children).

Two of my friedns went to a job interview and one of the interview stages was to complete a reasonably difficult test. They both did the test; one answered nine questions, the other one answered ten. When they went to the verbal interview, the one who answered ten said straight away: I didn't know the answer to this question so I googled it. He got the job simply because he had that initiative.

IMHO one of the biggest benefits of a VLE is that it gives the student tools on how to find the answer out, instead of requiring them to know it off pat.