So, apparently I enjoy playing the devil’s advocate when it comes to the weekly readings. I agree with some of what both Langer and Wesch write but—in a nice, exciting middle ground position—some of their views on anti-teaching and how to learn most effectively also differ from mine.
Langer speaks of the dangers of overlearning, excessive practice, and drilling “the basics” to student creativity and even mastery. One of the hazards of overlearning is the inability to react to new situations, although the examples Langer provides do not exactly lend a sense of urgency to incorporating mindfulness into education (turning on a car blinker on an abandoned road? walking on the left as opposed to the right side of the sidewalk?). However, I absolutely agree that practicing can be done to a fault. My first thought when I read this article was of a book I recently finished (and which I seem to reference in most of my blog posts and comments), Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown et al. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in teaching…very interesting and informative but also enjoyable to read. The authors discuss some of the educational myths that Langer outlines as well as strategies supported by pedagogical research to help students learn. One technique is interleaving (see also Scientific American article) as opposed to the traditional method of practicing a single skill repetitively before moving on to another. Interleaving is mixing up types of problems or drills, so, for example, instead of grouping math problems in a homework assignment by whether they require addition and subtraction or multiplication and division, the problems are jumbled. An example from the book outside of education is with batting practice in baseball. In one study, the pitches were in random order to one group of players and blocked by the type of pitch (twenty curveballs followed by twenty fastballs, etc.) to another. The players in the random, interleaved practice struggled more not knowing what pitch they were going to get but ended up performing better than the other group in future practice and games because they had learned to discriminate different pitches.
The topic of overlearning, especially in reference to “the basics,” also reminded me of the “Everything is a Remix” YouTube video series and TED talk by Kirby Ferguson that we watched in the Preparing the Future Professoriate class last semester. Langer warns against mindlessly going through the motions of learning basic skills, whether in tennis or math, without considering individual needs and abilities. Langer also questions the notion that a standard set of basics should exist, because these guidelines may hamper modifications that permit creativity and lead to new insights. Clearly, everyone is different, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for someone else. However, according to Ferguson in Part 3 of his series, “copying is how we learn.” In contrast to Langer, Ferguson seems to identify more with the school of thought that we need to learn some set of established fundamentals before we can go on to achieve greatness. He provides examples, mostly of famous artists, who start out by copying the work of others before they then become creative geniuses themselves. Bob Dylan’s first album consisted mostly of cover songs, and Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby, word for word, to know what it was like to write a novel. There are other examples, but the point is that practicing a skill in a prescriptive manner or according to what someone else did does not necessarily prevent or stifle creativity. Langer is not calling for a complete overhaul of basic skills acquisition, but the goal of individualizing “the basics” for every person is somewhat unrealistic. That being said, small changes can go a long way: for example, offering a few different ways one might hold a tennis racket is easy to do and avoids the mindset of “this is absolutely the only way this will ever work for you.” But I would argue that a general set of basics, fundamentals, or prerequisites are time-saving, but also useful and not in opposition to the goal of individual learning and mastery. So, to tie in with my post title, “yo, don’t bash the basics.”
Following our discussion on connected learning, I think we all hope to share our excitement about a subject to students to ignite their curiosity. Better yet, the students can then discover how the topics have meaning in their own lives–maybe beyond tests. While I think most of us want our students to find a passion for learning, Wesch accurately describes how many of us come up short. Students struggle to connect their education to anything meaningful? Yep. Students are more concerned with tests than understanding? Also yes. I am eager to change the climate of higher education to re-awaken a love of learning in students, but I thought Wesch’s views were biased toward a decidedly academic mindset. I believe that most college students are rational human beings, and while many of them do possess the capacity to love learning, they would also very much like a job one day that provides them food, water, shelter, and the ability to pay off student loan debt and procreate in a financially-responsible manner. In order to get this sort of job fifty years ago, a Bachelor’s degree was more than sufficient. Now, a Bachelor’s might not be enough, and applicants must additionally have good grades, internship or research experience, community service, and other resume-building activities. While many college students today are a product of the culture of standardized testing in K-12 education, their preoccupation with grades and tests is also a bit of a survival tactic: the job market is competitive, and, like it or not, grade point averages help determine whether or not you come out on top.
Despite the very real pressures students face, instructors can, and should, cultivate a desire to learn. All people are “cut out for learning,” to quote Wesch. However, I disagree with the notion that school, in the sense of colleges and universities, is for everyone. The education system obviously leaves much to be desired, and schools should better facilitate student success and encourage students to get excited about learning. That is to say, school is for many more people than current conditions would suggest, but still not for one hundred percent of individuals…and I think that is okay! I tend to be a big fan of trade and vocational schools. You want to be a raft guide for the rest of your life? Or a massage therapist? Or a welder? That’s awesome, you’ll probably be much happier than most academics that make six-figure salaries. Constant learning also takes place in these other professions. Or what about students that are driven by other, equally worthy passions besides strictly learning? For example, one of my friends studied to be a doctor (so, medical school and not vocational school, but you see where I am going with this), not because she is endlessly curious about disease mutations, but because she wants to help provide medical care to underprivileged people in the rural South. In order to be a good doctor, she will continually learn as well, but a burning desire to know is not what keeps her going; rather, I think her primary goal is to actively help people. The hunger for knowledge Wesch speaks of seems to apply more for Master’s or PhD-bound students interested in research. I feel that, as teachers, our focus should move towards not only fostering an atmosphere of learning but additionally helping students connect with their true interests and curiosities…and realizing that these will not always coincide with the passion for learning in a school setting that Wesch describes.