Saturday, February 26, 2005

Habits of Mind Form Early

I'll get back to the economics issues in a few days. This morning, while I'm working on my second cup and getting ready to go into the office, I want to focus on the following question. At the college level, can we really affect the way students think? or is that pre-set before they arrive on campus and the best we can hope for is to affect what ideas students look at and perhaps modify their sense of taste as to good questions and whether issues can be interesting even if they remain unresolved.

This past week my wife and I had a parent-teacher conference for our fifth grader, Ben, and since this was scheduled outside of the normal time (where its 15 minutes max) we were able to have a nice long chat about Ben. It's not fair for me to write about my own son in a public forum, so I won't do that here. Instead I want to focus on a few observations the teacher made. First, there is quite wide ability of the students in the way they learn and the observations they make. Some of the students learn at the surface level, at this age boys are more prone that way than girls. Others are capable and in fact do make abstract representations. They have a more adult view. Some of these kids may be more comfortable in the company of adults than with other kids. Second, these kids learn in all settings, not just the classroom. TV, which of course has been railed against as encouraging passivity in the kids, can be a good source for learning. Ditto for computer games. The issue may be with the kid, not the medium. What is the kid's intellectual disposition? Do they hunger to absorb new knowledge? We're talking fifth graders here, not adults. Third, the kids memorize on their own accord. This is the way they bring in new knowledge into the body of things they already know. The question is whether they can then use that new knowledge in other settings. The kids who are capable of abstract representations can do this.

We didn't get into what fraction of the kids learn at surface and what fraction of the kids have the more mature approach, but it is clear from the discussion that the schooling itself doesn't foster this, though it may reward the one over the other. And I'm talking about an excellent classroom with a really good teacher. So it either comes from the home or the genes. We don't like to talk about the latter and I don't haven anything smart to say on this other than that it is the residual for what is not well explained by nurture, so let's talk about the former. It seems obvious that the type of conversations kids are involved in matter. Parents help their kids grow through these conversations. So it is worth asking whether those are welcoming from the point of view of the kids and if they are akin to adult conversations or kid level. That matters a lot, at least that's my guess.

The related issue, turning this back to teaching, is whether the conversation occurs as open ended dialog or a negotiation, with some uncertainty as to how it will play out at the end, or if it is more close ended, a lesson with the purpose of achieving a pre-known result. My wife insisted early on, sometimes to my own chagrin because I wanted to get on with it, that the kids discuss and negotiate with her and let that process resolve issues. The result is that they negotiate everything and really don't go for the "I'm the parent and that's why" although we are able to enforce a few rules, but they have learned to argue and to relish argument as a form. Argument produces ideas and it does so in a social, adult setting. But it is time consuming and takes more processing, so it is less good for learning pre-known results.

That there are gender differences on the maturity of thinking at Ben's age suggest that kids do, at some point, make the leap to hyperspace and go from surface learning to abtract representation learning. But probably not everyone does make that leap. Much of what I take to be the goal of promoting active learning, a student-centered approach, and encouraging critical thinking seems to be taking the kids still on the immature side of the learning beforehand and making the class setting the trigger for encouraging the leap to happen. I know I've internally (meaning in my own head an occasionally in private converstation) been critical of the approach especially on the brainstorming and quick hitter type of active learning exercises that I've seen promoted, because it doesn't seem to acknowledge the need to chew on ideas and process - having the internal dialog that represents a similar method to argument but is with oneself and being somewhat unsatisifed about coming to conclusions too soon. So the question is whether we are deluding ourselves that by changing our method we can have big impact on the students. In other words, if the leap has not happened by the time they are 18, why should we expect it to happen at all?

But there is the thought that one does both surface learning and abstract representation learning and the setting determines which. I am not sure on this, but now I turn to myself as an example. In my ed tech role, I am largely self-taught and my prior role as a faculty member played a big role in conditioning that learning. However, I also operate within CITES and that has its own norms and culture. There, just to get by, I've had to accept many things at surface level. There is just too much to incorporate it all into some abstract representation. When I do ask why, I find myself unable to come up with answers that satisfy me as the critical thinker. For example, there are a lot of things that require my signature for approval. The signature is supposed to be my commitment that there has been scrutiny and oversight by me. In many cases, there is no other test than the signature. And because we are hierarchical, sometimes the real scrutiny is coming from elsewhere. So there are definitely cases where I sign, mumble somthing to Mary, and that's it. We have a process built around signatures, so I accept it. My drill down into things is orthogonal to the signature process, determined by things that interest me. They are two parallel strands, not one coherent whole. And I live with that, because that's they way things are done. Time is too short to make them otherwise. Apart form this little essay this morning, I've never reflected on it.

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