Friday, April 05, 2013

This Is A Complete Mischaracterization

David Brooks has another column today on MOOCs and their likely impact on Higher Education.  He says things that drive me batty.  The following paragraph, in particular, bothered me a lot.

When is rote appropriate?

There are things you absolutely must memorize:  SSN, home address, date of birth, phone number, combination for gym locker, etc.  When that information is retrieved it is given exactly the way it is learned.   There may be aspects of rote that are appropriate for learning technical subjects -  notation, certain key words, the names of famous people in the field.  But knowing this is not synonymous with knowledge of the subject.  

What happens when rote is used where it is inappropriate?

There is a joke we learned in grade school:

Teacher:  Jane, can you use the word diploma in a sentence?
Jane:  When the drain got stuck she called diploma.

Technical knowledge must be used in context.  If "learned" in a rote manner then the student can't apply it properly.

What then is technical knowledge?  

Technical knowledge is a meta skill or if you prefer a problem solving ability of a certain type.  It requires an ability to learn the requisite information needed as the context suggests.  It is not recall of things previously learned.  

Here is a simple example.  A few weeks ago I wanted to make a PowerPoint with an embedded MP3 file to play for the duration of the presentation when in Slideshow mode.  In order to figure out how to do this, something I hadn't done before with PowerPoint, I had to read the built in help.  So one part of the meta skill is being able to find the help that's necessary and then to digest it.  As it turns out what the help said didn't completely match what I saw on my computer screen, so another part of the meta skill is to tinker enough to get the gist of what's in the help and accomplish the task when there are small departures from what it said.  

Technical knowledge is robust that way.  In contrast, things learned by rote are quite brittle.  When there are tiny perturbations in the environment, the person feels lost. 

To summarize, technical knowledge is the learning to learn ability in a certain subject matter domain.  One possesses technical knowledge when one can transfer the recipes that Brooks mention to a context where it may not be immediate that the recipe applies to address the issue.

* * * * * 

Now a tiny bit on lectures and MOOCs as it speaks to the above.  Personally, I like lectures, subject to a few caveats.  I need to be comfortable where I'm sitting.  There should be enough novelty for me that there is a personal value add.  And the speaker needs to show some passion or animation for the subject.   For me lectures are intellectual fodder.  They are not sufficient for my learning.  I must process the ideas on my own.  The lecture can either be a prod for doing that or a confirmation that prior processing was on track.  My processing is done in a way to produce the ability to transfer what I learn.  It is in some sense like the scientific method in that after I think I've come to understand something I test it out in a different setting that seems to fit to see if it works.  I understand, if it does.  I need to process more, if it does not.

My sense of this is that other people who learn deeply might do a different sort of processing to come to the same understanding, but each one does something along these lines.  For those people who already understand to do this, lectures can be quite a good thing.  By extrapolation, MOOCs should also work quite well for this population.  

A large group of students, however, seem to operate under the same wrong idea that Brooks has.  They think the right approach of the student in the lecture is to memorize.  They don't grow much at all from doing that.  They probably get bored and/or disillusioned with what they are doing, because it's an activity that isn't useful.  Implicitly, they understand that.  Those among the faculty who view the lecture as a bad thing are focusing on these students.  They need to be coached, cajoled, whatever it takes, to move away from memorization toward something more organic regarding their learning.  One big thing is that they need to learn to fail, temporarily, but also to persist until their processing produces reasonable results.  Lectures as they are currently done don't seem to be doing that for these students.  Again by extrapolation, MOOCs won't solve this problem.


Joe McCarthy said...

I'm reminded of a Doonesbury strip from 1985, in which students are busily and unquestioningly taking notes from a lecture in which the professor is trying in vain to be provocative, at the end of which he concludes "teaching is dead".

As for learning to learn, I rarely bother to look at the online help provided with an application. I simply type in a "how to" query in Google, and typically arrive at a more effective solution. For example, if I were faced with the problem you described, I would use

to find solutions.

I think online learning extends beyond MOOCs into all kinds of other resources that are increasingly available to help us solve problems. We're all teachers and learners.

Lanny Arvan said...

Thanks for that. I haven't read Doonesbury for a long time. It captures the issue nicely.

I agree about doing Google searches for functionality things in MS Office, but even with that the advice still needs to be applied and there is some skill in that, one that is learned by practice.

We need more learning by doing and less rote. But the latter seems more of a direct way to do well on the exams, at least to a certain fraction of the students.