For what seems to be the better part of the last three decades, educational leaders have been researchers how students learn from a psycho-social viewpoint. Most educational experts agree with Howard Gardner's work on Multiple Intelligences which explains that students can be "smart" in more genres than simply traditional academic intelligence. Additionally, research indicates that in order to teach a classroom filled with students that are strong in a wide array of these intelligences, it is essential to (education buzz word coming) differentiate instruction. To this point, millions of dollars and thousands of hours have gone into training teachers how to differentiate their instruction. Programs have been designed that attempt to equip teachers with a myriad of strategies, most of which are in some way based on cooperative learning techniques (check out this video for a funny bit that covers the basics of cooperative learning http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyvvTE6i9cA).
I have a particular concern with this on a conceptual level. Doesn't it seem ironic that we in education almost exclusively revert one specific strategy, or common spin offs of it, as we attempt to differentiate our instruction to engage students of all ability levels and of all types of intelligences?
Here is what I think needs to happen. I open every semester at school with a presentation to my high school students explaining to them that I understand that they are smart, just maybe not in the traditional academic sense. When I tell them that I truly believe they can all master high school Algebra, undoubtedly I get quite a few students with looks or comments that clearly indicate that they "know" that they cannot do the math we will be learning.
To counter this, I ask the kids to all take out their cell phones. We place all of them in a bag and then mix them up. The cell phones are then randomly assigned to the students. I give them 1 minute and ask them to send a text to their phone number. Without hesitation the class opens the phones and the students quickly begin to text themselves. After the minute is up we return the cell phones to their owners. Typically, the students are curious as to why we did this. The following dialogue ensues:
T: "Did you use a phone that was the same model as yours?"
T: "Could you have used the random phone to get on the internet, take a picture, or look up a number?"
S: "Yeah. It's easy."
T: "Would you have used a manual for the new phone if it had been available to you?"
S: "No! Phones don't come with manuals."
T: "Has an adult ever asked you to show them how to use their phone?"
T: "Describe that situation."
S: (last semester's response) "My mom got a new phone and she asked me to show her how to text and send pictures on it. She said she had read the manual but just couldn't figure it out."
T: "How long did it take you to teach your mom how to send a picture?"
S: "Forever. She kept writing down every little step and then would look back to her notepad to use her phone. She eventually decided it wasn't that important to be able to do and said she would just not use (that function)."
The point is that millennials have been conditioned to intuitively think like a computer. With little or no computer programming background, teenage students are able to master complex task on mobile phones in less than two or three minutes. How? It is because they learn by intuition instead of memorizing procedures. If I want to teach an adult to use facebook, I have to give them screenshots and pages of step-by-step procedures, or they just resolve themselves to only using the simplest functions because it is not practical to memorize all of the procedures. Students, on the other hand, master social networking sites with ease. After making the connection to how the students learn, I ask them to consider how we could learn algebra the same way.
We often teach math procedurally; follow this step, then that, then that one. As students move into more advanced math and sciences, it becomes increasingly difficult (maybe even impossible) for them to remember how to do all of the steps. Instead, I challenge my students to learn to "think like math" much the same way they "think like a cell phone." Why do kids master technology quickly? They understand it deep enough that they acquire new information about it intuitively instead of procedurally.
How powerful would it be if we could tap into this intuitive processing in an academic arena? What if kids came to class and "just figured out" math, science, etc.? It can be done, and I think the first step is to convince students to take responsibility for how they pursue academic knowledge and to challenge themselves to begin to develop a mindset that attempts to think like the subject instead of trying to regurgitate information. However, this also requires teachers to embrace the notion that grading students through traditional testing mechanisms simply is not adequate or appropriate.
It will take a generation of teachers to change this mindset, but the the last decade of changing technology has set the table for all students to walk into our classrooms with minds already cultivated for the intuitive assimilation of knowledge. Now, we must take advantage of this situation and change the way we think about teaching. In doing so, we will revolutionize the industry, and ultimately, provide a better, more equal education for all students.
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