Learning is taking something away

Theorists like to use pictures to describe how learning works. “Not filling a bucket but lighting a flame.” Constructivists are gathering wins in the neuroscience, with their picture of learning as building connections between nodes of ideas.

Adding and connecting ideas? That sounds a lot like the learning I’ve mostly done! You too? Pretty cool stuff.

I don’t know what she’s learning, but she seems very pleased about it. (Creative Commons – From Here)

Today, though, I want to talk about a different picture of learning: Taking something away. The image in my mind is that of the gardener, trimming the dessicated away from the healthy. While it necessarily follows the adding and connecting processes, cutting away nodes is arguably more valuable. To me, the ability to effectively prune mistaken or non-useful concepts sets highly capable critical minds apart from those minds less mature.

What am I talking about? Trimming trees? No! It’s about cutting out mistaken beliefs, misshapen concepts, and false ideas.

Although, if you had mistaken notions about how to trim trees, and then you pruned those ideas from your mind… (CC again, from Here, which is a strangely nice site for an Oregon municipality.) Do NOT cut along C-X.

When I learn, I begin with a set of assumptions. In some few situations, every bit of material is brand new to me; most of the time, I have some background knowledge. If I hear things that fit well with the background knowledge that I had, it is hard to tell what was there before and what was newly added (i.e. learned) from my participation!

However, if I had an idea that new evidence clearly contradicts, and I actually change my mind and how I see the world, THEN I know that I have surely learned. When my old idea is debunked and I see more clearly, I have more power to understand the world around me and predict what will happen.

Where do you find this sort of learning? Yes, you can watch Mythbusters or read popular science myths debunked or what have you. Those give you the instant thrill of changing your mind, if you had actually believed mistakenly and buy into the evidence presented. (Mythbusters is entertaining, sure, but hardly good science.)

In fact, you can learn this way all the time – with the right mindset. Developing a discerning eye means looking critically at your own beliefs. If you could state in sentences what you believe before going into a lecture or reading a chapter, and then explain what changed afterwards, then you are aware of what you learned. I have been trying to practice this, and have found myself frustrated by some classes that do not take anything away, particularly in the social sciences.

Teachers: if you do not find out what your students already know, you might not be adding any new knowledge or taking any misconceptions away.

I find that my mind is sharper when I know what I know and what I don’t, and I learn faster when I am focused on finding and correcting my misconceptions. I hope you can find some of your own false beliefs and learn too!

Learning to listen (part 2)

Communication is hard. We have all of these pictures in our mind, and we try to put them into words. Even when we say what we mean, whoever’s on the other end has other pictures in their head, and the words don’t always match the same pictures. (And sometimes we promise follow up posts in two days and don’t post for two weeks…)

When I wrote about listening in part one, I was talking about the act of listening; the mental process of turning sounds we hear into meaning, especially in conversations. But when people say ‘listening,’ they mean all kinds of things besides that. Today’s post is about some of those other meanings – particularly, what adults mean when they talk to children about listening and what we mean when we talk about listening to a group’s perspective.

‘Good Student’ Listening

When humans sit in rows, there are expectations and norms of behavior. The one at the front is important, those sitting must be silent, attentive (head up, facing forward, perhaps taking notes), obedient. Throughout formative years in western schools, the successful students, the ones in rows, learn to meet these expectations, to listen this way, and they are called ‘good students’. Those who cannot sit still and face forward silently face mounting consequences. They are called ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’ and made to go to principals offices and their parents have conferences and the letters they take home make them feel inadequate and insecure. This is one mode of listening we learn.

This kind of listening skill is useful to have – those who learn it can attend college and conferences, rise in tax bracket and status, move to nice neighborhoods whose schools have children who sit in their rows and listen.

I’ve said that communication is difficult. Even one-on-one, we all too frequently need to clarify our meaning, restate and reframe our sentences. Teachers in classrooms have a Sisyphean task, to corral the students into their silent, forward-facing rows, and then somehow communicate with them, transfer knowledge to all of them, unilaterally.  If the students are very good, they will appear to hear everything, and perhaps take notes. As is often the case, however, their questions after the fact and their quiz and test results reveal a tragic lack of hearing.

Didn’t I go over that in class? Weren’t you even paying attention? Were you listening?

Some of the difficulties in communicating come from bad estimates of inferential distance. You should click the link to find out more, but in short, we assume that others have a similar frame of understanding that we do, and will therefore understand what we are talking about. More often, those we speak to don’t have our background knowledge or assumptions, so much of what we say falls short in conveying the intended meaning.

Teachers and lecturers run into this problem all the time – they expect students to have read and comprehended more than they have, or know that their students lack prerequisite knowledge and have to reteach. Moreover, those at the front face rows of students with different backgrounds. Whether or not they know the inferential distance between them and their students, juggling the expectations and abilities of a heterogenous group is nigh-on impossible. Some students get left behind, while others are bored with coverage of concepts they already know. Some teaching strategies and assumptions and examples work with some students, but not with others.

What’s the point here? Listening in classes is hard for students and speaking to rows of very different individuals is hard for teachers, but what do we do about it, besides recognize that it is hard?

I wish that I had a way to make all classrooms places of genuine communication and learning, but I am long on problems and short on solutions. I have been a fan of learning models that get away from rows and lectures. You’ve probably heard of Montessori and not heard of Sudbury or Summerhill. For some, rows are a ludicrous proposition for learning, and they are done away with. I don’t know if the free school model would work for everyone; it has its own problems.

Listening to groups

Another meaning of ‘listening’ is giving time, weight, and credence to the perspectives of a group of people. Commentators talk about listening to “the experts,” politicians talk of listening to their constituents, social justice peddlers talk about listening to the downtrodden, education reformers (some education reformers) talk about listening to teachers or, in rare, shining moments, listening to students.

It turns out that in order to help people, the necessary first step is to listen to them. I can’t say it better than people who are very very good at talking about listening, but I can repeat what I’ve heard my experience and send you off to better sources.

You are likely clever and already see where these listenings overlap, and what conclusions I intend for you to draw from reading all this, but bear with me as I spell it out.

The ‘good listening’ we learn as students is not really listening, and it prevents the kind of listening we need in order to help kids learn. If we care about changing things, we have to listen to those in need, not sit them in rows and tell them to shut up and listen. While this group listening concept applies to any sort of world-saving you might want to engage in, I care about education most, and you, reading this, probably care about it at least a little.

There are some signs that students are slowly having a say in the conversation about their education. Not all is bleak. But there is a long, long way to go if we want to get out of the rows.


Confessions of a former grammar prescriptivist

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: posted from the road, coming back from New Brunswick. Tomorrow or Tuesday I will come back to this post and the previous one to add links. Stay tuned!

I love words. As a lil tyke, I tore through series of all kinds, hardy boys and treehouse and animorphs and Lotr and Harry Potter and all the rest. Words were (and still are) the atoms of the worlds I escaped to.

I started learning the rules of grammar, both in school and from my parents and grandparents. Grandpa would make a loud ‘bzzzt’ if any of us grandkids used ‘like’ as a filler word, and Ms. Kopp had us diagram compound complex sentences. As a middle schooler, I took these rules for granted. While I liked to argue with teachers, having real, solid rules let me, with my advanced knowledge of said rules, hold a kind of power or superiority over classmates and siblings.

I looooooved to correct people’s grammar. I got in trouble at some point for passing a note in class, informing a classmate that ‘irregardless’ was not grammatical, at the expense of a teacher.

But I was wrong. Doubly wrong in that particular case, as ‘irregardless’ is a properly grammatical synonym for ‘regardless’. But I was wrong in a deeper sense, about what I was doing. It may not have been my fault; I had learned to correct grammar from a young age, and idolized, for instance, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There remains a part of me that grows frustrated with “improper” punctuation or usage.

But I have learned the error of my ways. Grammar, spelling, usage, all of these language elements: we made them. And we can break them.

See, the top-pro grammar folks study linguistics. How people come to understand each other and the complex meanings we can evoke with sound or sign or text. They take it as an axiom that language is not some unmoving monolith; the rules of grammar and punctuation were not inscribed on some tablets outside the universe and handed down to us.

We made them so that we can communicate, and if we can do that effectively, all the rules in the world don’t mean diddly.

Now, if you are a naturally skeptical mind, you might challenge me and say: but we need consistent rules if we are going to understand each other!! We need teachers to teach the grammar that my teacher taught me and that my pappy’s pappy taught him, straight from his King James!

Is our quest really for understanding? Or is it to keep in place the power structures that privilege those who descend from privilege?

See, if grammar is something that you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ then those who learn from their parents ‘how to talk right,’ (or even ‘how to speak correctly’) will have the advantage over those who only ever used words to get their point across. Just another way for discrimination to work.

Natural language has rules. Those rules are the object of study of scientists, but should not be the aim of instructors. If you had certain students who grew up in a null-g background, you would not teach them to obey the rules of gravity or punish them on tests if they could not stay down.

Teaching English has a place, for sure. I know well the difficulty of communicating, and how much difference it makes to practice and keep on practicing, to see the powerful examples of language superusers, the Kings and Dickensons and Foster Wallaces.

But we gotta cease with the prescriptivism, guys. We gotta recognize the rules for what they are; outdated, mistaught, misunderstood relics from an era when we thought we could know everything, and that people who didn’t know what we did we less than we were, less than good, less than human. It’s hurting real people!