Sunday, May 03, 2009

Neuroscience: Learning involves a certain level of ... boring stuff

In the Wall Street Journal, Christopher M. Chabris comments on education fads ("How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds: Will the discoveries of neuroscientists help us to think, learn and remember?", April 27, 2009):

The trendy notion that each person has a unique learning style comes under an especially withering assault. "How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?" asks Mr. Willingham's hypothetical teacher. The disillusioning reply: "No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn."

It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in "style," researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as "auditory learners" and "visual learners." Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.

But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum -- at all levels of schooling -- is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. "Specious," for instance, means "seemingly logical, but actually fallacious" whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.
No, of course not. It will help you learn more dancing. Each subsequent dancing assignment will be easier for you, due to your mastery of the previous ones.

In the same way, my excellent education in English Language and Literature did not help me learn more experimental physics - or even French, unfortunately.

Basically, the early stages of learning are often (= usually) boring. Repetitive drills, et cetera.
But there is a difference between productive and non-productive boredom.

Memories: When I was in kindergarten in 1955, my teacher, a Miss Newman, from Britain, wrote out my name on a large card. She taught me to read, beginning with that very same card.

So when I was in Grade One, later - in another school in a different part of town - I dimly began to realize that I was in a class of students who did not know how to read.

After some days of non-productive boredom, I got hold of some book from the back of the room and tagged the elbow of the teacher, and said, "Please, ma'am, listen", and started to read to her from that book.

Well, she immediately marched me across the hall and presented me to the teacher of the class that could read. I was that teacher's problem, not hers.

The books were better. So the early boredom had paid off.

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