Learn to practise; practise to learn

thinking monkey

Hmmm. I learn, therefore I teach.... I think.

While in England in 2007, it took me several weeks to get used to looking the other way when crossing a street.  Exactly how that happened has led me to revise how I think students should be taught, how “teaching to the test” is bad, and how we might be able to help make our students think more deeply and creatively.

I spent the summer of 2007 in Cambridge, England, as part of my sabbatical.  Having been in England before, I was well aware that cars drive on the other side of the road.  I also know that non-UK tourists are easily spotted by how their heads whip from side to side at curbs and intersections.  Unacquainted with the streets of Cambridge, and knowing I was there for quite a stretch, I knew I had to acclimatize quickly to the direction of traffic at intersections.  The first few days where a bit of a trick.  Several times, I came close to having a close encounter of the automotive kind as I walked from my rented house to the University Campus.

I got used to it slowly, and within a few weeks I could easily walk to Campus with no more traffic-induced trepidation than I feel walking around downtown Toronto.

Once I’d settled into a routine of sorts, I started to explore the magnificent city a little more boldly.  And that’s when I noticed something odd: when I had to cross a street that was new to me – that wasn’t on one of my regular routes – I found myself looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic.  This struck me as odd because I thought I had overcome my Canadian habits.  Instead, it seemed that all I’d done was teach my brain to look to the right only at certain locations.

It all worked out in the end because, after all, I’m still here and not pasted to the undercarriage of some English automobile.  But the thing kept nagging me, because of its implications for teaching.  If what I experienced was an actual phenomenon, and if I’m not that different from most other people (or at least most other people who are engineers), then what happened to me could mean that I and perhaps some of my colleagues need to rethink how we teach.

If I generalize my road-crossing experience, one might hypothesize that learning a skill (like looking in a certain direction for oncoming traffic) can be quite tightly tied to the context in which it is learnt.  I’d learnt to look to the right for traffic at only those several intersections along my usual route.  Outside of that context, I’d learnt nothing.

This suggests yet another reason why “teaching to the test” is a bad educational practise.  In this mode, students are trained to do well on the specific kinds of questions likely to occur on tests.  Having learnt in one context, the students may do much better in the test than in other, “real life” situations that constitute a different context.  This invalidates the test’s role as an assessment tool.

But more than that, it suggests one way that we educators can approach teaching skills to our students.  A skill requires a certain basic behaviour or mental process to be carried out, where the behaviour or mental process may have to be adapted to suit the circumstances (context).  First, we fix the context and just teach the skill, so that the student has a rudimentary ability.  I say rudimentary because the skill is coupled to the context, and as with my experience in Cambridge, the skill won’t necessarily transfer to other contexts.  (This is basically where “teaching to the test” ends.)

The next, deeper step is to fix the skill and vary the context, forcing students to learn how to adapt the skill to new situations.  Not only should the students gain the ability to apply the skill to a much broader set of contexts, but they will also learn how to adapt the skill to contexts that not even the teachers have shown them.  The students’ thinking should be more adaptable and more innovative as a result.  At first, the variations in context should be slight because the students were theretofore accustomed to a fixed context – any changes would be disruptive to their thinking.  But the novelty would not be the skill itself, but rather its application in context.  As the students acclimate to working in different contexts, the variation of the contexts can become greater and greater.

Of course, the secret here is practise – ‘way more practise than I think many of us typically include in our courses.  Practise really does make perfect.  Even with “book knowledge,” practise matters.  If you can’t apply that book knowledge, then why bother learning it?  This is something that fewer and fewer students understand; so many of my students – heck, even my own kids – think that if you can do one or two exercises on a given topic, then you know the material.  No such luck.  Students need to learn to practise, so they can practise to learn.

And practise means time.  This is the practical problem: there just isn’t enough time to let students practise.  There isn’t enough time because curricula seem to get ever more bloated with material of questionable relevance, so fewer and fewer exercises are being carried out.  This is A Bad Thing.  We need to provide our students with training in how to think, not just a bunch of facts.  As we’re going these days, I think we’re turning out graduates about as useful as books – just sterile piles of information stuffed into brains not at all qualified to apply that information to anything at all.

So we educators need to learn about practise (again) too.  We need to rediscover its importance to let students discover how to think for themselves and by themselves.  If that means re-conceptualizing what and how we teach – and redesigning our courses to suit – then so be it.

Now, since I only have one data point here – my experience in Cambridge – I certainly wouldn’t suggest we all run out and redesign our courses to suit this idea.  But it sure sounds interesting to me, and I will be pursuing it in my own courses.

If any educators reading about this have already heard of this idea and know of any sources in the literature covering it, please leave a comment with the citations.


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