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Two Theories of Learning: My Thoughts September 30, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Saving the World, Teaching.
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A few days ago I saw this article by Marion Brady on Twitter. Being a teacher (with a strong interest in cognitive/educational psychology) I found the article – entitled “How Ed Reformers Push the Wrong Theory of Learning” – well-written and right in line with my own theories of teaching and learning. (A shame, then, that it probably won’t get the attention it deserves, if what it says about the current educational environment is true.)

Bradley writes:

Theory T [the “conventional wisdom”] says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up…Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?” No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put…

…Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge. Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

Anyone who’s read my previous blog post (or for that matter spent any time ON my blog :D) will probably know that my own teaching consists almost totally of Theory R, with Theory T brought in only when absolutely necessary and then with considerable reluctance. I’m fairly sure that, in most lessons I teach, about 50% of the time is spent asking questions (“If that note is 2 beats long, how long is this note?”), about 45% making requests (“Try playing this bit after me”) and only about 5% issuing statements, like “That note is a G”.

It may, perhaps, seem self-evident that the only way to learn piano is “learning by doing”, that children cannot possibly play music they don’t understand, that asking questions in a lesson is the best way to teach children how to figure out new music at home. And yet, I’ve had, occasionally, considerable resistance thrown up to Theory R methods. More often it’s come from parents who want “quick results” – measurable, testable “progress” to, say, a given method book by a given date.

Understanding doesn’t work that way. Particularly not in music, which is partly a physical, partly mental, partly emotional and even (when playing with others) an interpersonal discipline. It’s the norm, rather than the exception, for a student to quickly master one aspect of music – say, notation – and yet struggle with, for example, the physical aspects of piano technique for years As in my own experience.

Yet I’ve encountered resistance from children as well. Most often it’s from children in the late elementary school age range, who have become so accustomed to “Theory T” methods of teaching and learning that they cannot see any alternative, and yet aren’t old enough to analyze what I am actually trying to do. Their reaction is simply bewilderment, and sometimes annoyance:

Why is my new piano teacher asking me all these questions? Is this some kind of test – will I get a mark? How am I supposed to answer to “get it right”? I don’t remember what that note is, this isn’t fair, it’s been all summer…what does she mean “you can figure it out”, sure I know the note two spaces above it, but how does that help…

Oh.

(One 8-year boy I taught must win the prize, hands down, for an “extreme Theory T” approach. He played a song in his lesson that I’d assigned the week before; the notes were mostly right, but the rhythm was so erratic that it bore no resemblance to the original. I asked him if he’d read the words printed beneath each line of music, since their natural rhythm would have helped him figure it out. He gave me a look of wide-eyed, almost betrayed astonishment. “But you didn’t ASSIGN the words!” he protested.)

…And yet, after the initial shock, there’s this almost ubiquitous sense of relief – that, when they step into the piano studio, they can leave all the arbitrariness and unreasonableness of Theory T learning, and testing, behind them. This is a teacher who asks lots of questions, sure, but who will show them how to get the answers if needed. Better yet, this is a teacher who will answer any question they ask, even if it means leaving the F major scale until next week – and who will give them an answer that really makes sense. This teacher doesn’t expect them to “know” lots of stuff…only be willing to figure it out. Children have a limited vocabulary to analyze or talk about educational methods, but I’m frankly astounded by how many students have told me (in whatever words they can find) that their lessons make sense this year, like they didn’t last year with the old teacher. Something has clicked.

The smallest things can make a difference, too. One student expressed immense relief to me that I “didn’t use red pen to mark his theory questions, like the old teacher.” Of course it had never in a million years occurred to me to do that – every piano teacher keeps a pencil on hand, and when I’d come across an incorrect answer I’d merely circled it with the pencil, handed the book to him and explained why it needed fixing, whereupon he corrected it. But – thinking it over – there is something profoundly disquieting about the urge to mark in red pen (despite its convenience for large group test situations!) The color red suggests stop signs, stoplights, a rigid rule or law that has been broken, with dire consequences. And then pen is indelible. To mark something in red pen (even if you let the student fix it later!) must subconsciously suggest to the child that they got the answer wrong, and it will always be wrong, and even if they fix it a hundred times this wrong score will be forever recorded, set in stone, immutable.

Of course, I have the immense privilege of teaching students in a one-on-one situation, which allows for more flexibility. I cannot imagine how teachers in charge of large classrooms make it through the day, let alone teach (at all!) I can well imagine that it would be hard to, for example, suddenly begin using Socratic methods in a classroom of 30 first-graders. And yet there must be a better method than to furiously cram information into a child’s head, test to ensure that it (or at least a bit of it) “stuck”, and then move on to the next batch. Maybe technology holds a greater potential for interactive, “hands-on” learning? But that’s sheer speculation, and deserves a blog post in and of itself…

In any case, technology has already made certain of one thing. Theory T may never have made all that much sense, but in an time where any fact is a click of the mouse away, it is quite spectacularly pointless. Let’s try something – anything! – else, but surely even a 6-year old child could see that Theory T has become hopelessly redundant in the Internet Era?

…Oh wait. They have. It’s adults who are still catching up.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Comments»

1. Tweets that mention Two Theories of Learning: My Thoughts « The Contrapuntal Platypus -- Topsy.com - September 30, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joni Thorne, Eowyn. Eowyn said: @jonitchr You may also be interested in my response (to the #education article) at http://j.mp/9ZjXRn🙂 […]

2. Danya - October 1, 2010

I think with younger students Theory R is a great way to get them to learn how to learn, how to problem-solve, and how to think critically. However, I do think that once you get into higher education (university, for instance) Theory T has its own merits in teaching large amounts of specific knowledge. I know I remember a lot of concepts from my university classes (especially those within my major) because I was invested to learn them, and because I was building a foundation of information about a specialized discipline. I don’t know that Theory R would have accomplished that as well – though the critical thinking skills I used to approach some of the problems and assignments from my university classes were likely based on previous Theory R education.

Love the story about the kid who said, “You didn’t assign the words!” Also totally agree – red pen is associated with “WRONG” in the minds of most kids.

3. Montecelery - November 17, 2010

Yep. My favorite English teacher in high school used purple for editing. It felt so casual and laid-back. She was so sweetly feminine, I don’t think any of us ever questioned why, except maybe to decide she really liked purple. But it probably increased visibility for her grading purposes too. Red is such a power color, it says things in a scream – why not grade in green?

contrapuntalplatypus - November 19, 2010

I like purple as well🙂 Not sure that boys would be so enthusiastic though…they’d probably consider it a “girly” color.

I do love the idea of green…it gives the message of “go” rather than “stop” (as in “let’s GO and figure out how to do this math program so that the answer comes out the right way!” rather than “you messed up.”)


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