Please bear with me as I muse over these ideas on paper – well, digital paper. As i tell my students (or, as they might say, nag them), put ideas down to help you think them over, because you can only juggle so many ideas at once in your head.
And there I go again, providing back story…
Most of us in the teaching profession have commented, lamented, bragged, or at least observed that teaching and learning ain’t what it used to be, due to some combination of changes in students, their teachers, society, culture, and values. In particular, I am finding that over the last few years I am losing the narrative.
Have you noticed that when you study a complex subject in depth, that it seems to get easier the more you learn? At first glance this seems counter-intuitive – you might think that the more you learn the more you have to remember, making it harder. What is happening, however, is that we are completing a giant puzzle. At first, the pieces are separate, and make little sense. But the more pieces we have, the easier it is to see the picture, and everything starts to reinforce everything else. We begin to understand the system, rather than having to remember the pieces.
It has always been my stated goal to help students move toward understanding the system, rather than trying to remember the pieces, and so I try to provide as much context as possible, to weave a narrative around the whole on which the parts can be pinned. But I am finding it more and more difficult to transfer that narrative. Maybe it’s me, maybe the students, maybe the curriculum, but I think it is some combination of all three.
A few years ago a colleague from a different school took a sabbatical year, and as part of his research, he read the Campbell Biology textbook from cover to cover. He said the truly remarkable thing was that it read like a novel. It is a good text, but when read from start to finish the entire text is a narrative, with each new concept carefully pinned to the storyline. Meanwhile, I am finding the Science curriculum I am required to teach to be more and more characters, and not enough plot.
One contribution to the problem is the shift towards brevity. I am more of an old-school orator, and trying to weave a complex contextual framework in a soundbite world is a challenge. I struggle somewhat with trying to balance context and facts – there is really only time in a course to do one of them well. Experience tells me that context is harder for the students to learn, while facts are easy to dig up in the information age. But it is also less concrete, and harder for the students to see the relevance of. They see the facts and details as the things that should be “taught”, because that is what they are used to. And what their parents are used to, and what we are used to.
I find that while students today are capable of finding out information quickly, they develop the sense that any question has an answer than can be found quickly, and they are less likely to spend time digging and working through problems. As a result, they need more guided work time during class when I can help get them unstuck as they work through the more complex material. They are less likely to complete those tasks on their own at home. So while context an narrative is becoming more important to teach than ever, I have to chop my lessons down to “just the facts Ma’am” in order to maximize hands-on time.
Flipping the classroom (which I am experimenting with in my grade 9 astronomy unit) is one way to help deal with this issue, though so far my results have been mixed. Modelling is another approach that helps students build their own context as well as facts, but it requires considerable training to accomplish. Blended learning can provide a self-guided course with teacher supervision and support, but requires a certain maturity and self-motivation from the students to be effective.
I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. Certainly not a quick answer. But it is a problem worth spending time exploring. My students are worth it.