Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How do you learn?

One of those things we try to do as teachers is to teach kids based on their own learning styles. Sometimes we even try to help them think about how they learn. We give them learning style inventories, get them to reflect on what methods worked for their learning, get them to do that whole metacognitive thinking about thinking thing. (Well, some of us do. This is something that I'm not very good at, actually.) I wonder, though, how much other teachers understand their own learning processes. How do you all learn?

This question is inspired by the realization that my own learning style has been getting in the way of my teaching.

I learn very inductively. (After a distracted quarter of an hour of research, I'm still not sure if that's actually the word I want.) That is, I learn best by taking a pile of specifics and doing the work on my own to turn them into generalizations. I like to stuff myself to the gills with information on whatever topic I'm currently researching, and then I let it all ferment. I find connections, I sort, I sift, I go off on wild tangents that still connect back to the main topic, and after a while it all clicks. All that mass of information is organized into a nifty little outline, with conclusions and their supporting data, along with the occasional sidenote sticky fact. A few months later, I've forgotten the supporting data but the conclusions have become a firm part of my mind.

Because I learn like this, I tend to feel that everything needs context. "If I'm going to expect my students to understand x," I say to myself, "I should tell them about y and z so they can see why I think x is true."

Sometimes this urge is a good thing.

More often, it's not.

One of the main things that connect lessons I come away from feeling like it just didn't fly is that in my zeal to show you x, y, z and their funny cousin q, I got away from the basic principle of all design: keep it simple, stupid.

I need to constantly ask myself questions like:
  • "Teaching with primary documents is great, but do I need to expose them to this many different sources on the topic?"
  • "Do they really need to know the answers to all 10 of those questions to get the essential understanding I'm aiming for?"
  • "Will this information actually help them make sense of things or just bog them down in more facts to memorize?"
  • "Am I making the narrative behind the information clear enough or just expecting them to see it because I do?"
I'm actually pretty excited about this realization, because I've finally gelled a vague frustration into a thing that I can do something about and I did something about it today while planning. Nothing like a little success to build up confidence. ;)


Neal said...

Don't mind me, I'm just trolling your archives. I had to comment here because you learn exactly like I do.

Of course, in my case, there are usually a dozen freak out moments along the lines of: "why the heck am I letting myself go off on yet another tangent! FOCUS, DAMMIT, FOCUS!!!" Fortunately, sooner or later it all magically crystallizes in my mind. It's a rather surreal feeling.

I suspect my problem may be the opposite of yours, however, when it comes to teaching. I tend to assume that no one else will ever care about the excruciating minutiae of context and tangential relationships like I do. This usually leads to me stating things as fact that may actually be quite controversial, or glossing over some fantastically entertaining anecdotes out of fear of boring my audience.

Penelope said...

It's a balance, I think. Sometimes I go too far the other way, and I do the same thing you do.