Saturday, October 26, 16:15 CDT

Educate me.

Context: Brent and Stephen both rose to the bait, from different angles, and both of them are a lot more reasonable about this than I'm going to be.

Rather than make a comprehensive response, which I'm not sure my Personal Philosophy of Education (tm) is up to, I'm going to pick out a couple of things to hammer on. This won't necessarily be in any order. Hope I don't misrepresent anyone's ideas here.

Brent:

Let's focus on the students for now. How can students improve their "immediate learning?" By concentrating on their material at the beginning of the semester, not the end. By trying to subsume it into their subconscious as soon as possible.

Brent focuses on what students could do to get more out of what he calls the dominant "Talk Talk Teaching" model. (What happens, in effect, in many highschool classrooms and most undergraduate university settings, especially the giant lecture hall environment.) Points:

  • I don't accept the validity of this model. Not now, if I ever did. In its pure form, I think it sucks in nearly all of its implementations. I think it sucks too much to pretend that its continued use is justified by anything but the sheer inertia of the system.
  • I said I was going to be unreasonable about this.

That said, let's think about the student's role in this environment. I'm willing (for the moment) to make the assumption that students are actually concerned with learning material rather than simply passing a class. I'm even willing to believe that they'll give some thought to how they should go about it.

There's nothing wrong with any of Brent's suggestions, as far as they go. If you want to get the most out of a traditional class, studying material as soon as it's available rather than waiting for tests and major written assignments to approach is a good idea. So are things like reviewing notes after lectures (should you actually take notes), and reading textbook material before class. Right?

There are tons of things I could do personally to improve what I learn from almost any class I take. I've given this some thought lately, and offhand: I could read assigned material well in advance. I could seek out related material - primary sources, maps, statistical information, scientific research, period literature, philosophical and religious context - and actually read it. I could do writing that would attempt to summarize and synthesize the information I'm taking in, and draw connections to other classes I'm taking. I could try to build a framework that gives context and meaning to everything I know. I could finally get around to making that giant timeline for my wall, or compiling that Book of Everything Brennen to house the written and artistic residue of every important experience in my life. I could make real efforts to communicate with teachers outside of class in a fashion clearly devoid of bootlicking.

All of these things are possible. Should be possible. They're the tip of an iceberg. Am I doing them? Not really. Is anyone else? More to the point, is anyone else in this system? Maybe. I don't know. If they are, I don't know them. I can't imagine what they'd be like or how they'd manage to pursue anything like a real life in the meantime. And when do you decide there's no point in taking a class over something you're teaching yourself more effectively anyway?

Brent:

Tangent: Why does nobody read the book before class? It gives you a terrific introduction to the material, so that you're already near the same wavelength as the teacher when the class begins.

I think I know why.

There's no moderate way to put this. Textbooks suck. Suck.

No, not all of them. But far, far too many. Of books explicitly intended for the classroom, I can remember three that ever rose above mediocrity: Paul G. Hewitt's Conceptual Physics, and the Anatomy and Psychology texts my senior year of high school. That's it. Everything else? Expensive, badly written, inaccurate, patronizing, obtuse, poorly organized, and/or just plain irrelevant to the class as taught.

A textbook that gives a terrific introduction to the material is an exception, not the rule. So is a teacher (most especially a good teacher) whose wavelength is drawn from a textbook. Too many teachers use what are explicitly intended to be textbooks, which I'm fairly certain only really works in portions of the hard sciences and mathematics. The only thing worse than a mediocre textbook is a set of Power Point slides.

But let's dismiss all of that. Maybe I'm overstating things. Posit a world where for most classes you're given written material, in advance of lectures, that's well written and firmly connected to the matter at hand.

People still wouldn't be reading it, would they?

I used to define myself as a voracious reader. That's moderated a little since I've run into people whose sheer volume and breadth of intake makes me feel like a train-ride romance novel addict who's never stepped outside the bounds of the Harlequin section at B&N or the pages of People magazine. I'm not even pretending to be well read. (Relax, people. I say it with love. I'm a genre boy too. I've read nine-tenths of Louis L'amour, too much Tom Clancy, all of Travis McGee, and more Robert B. Parker than you. People still sucks, though.)

Anyway, I like to read. In fact, I love to read. I do it compulsively. Cereal boxes, CD track listings, and whatever's on the back of the scrap paper my Latin prof passes out for quizzes. All my media geek credentials are dead or dying, but I'm an information junkie still.

And do I read for class?

Usually. An hour before class. A week or two afterwards. A couple of days before the test. Sometimes. Maybe.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. I enjoy reading, and I don't mind taking the time to do it. Most people do not like to read, and do not like to spend the time to do it. (Most people, for that matter, are not semi-monastic loners devoid of social obligations.) If I don't always get this stuff done, and almost never in a fashion that could be described as timely, how realistic is it to expect anyone else to do better? Without an immediate effect on their grades or any discernable change in the flow of a class which doesn't depend on their contribution, because the teacher can't afford to depend on their contribution, what motivation do they have beyond the intrinsic value of reading, which they can't see anyway?

Breaking off.

That's more than I meant to write and less than I meant to say. I didn't even get to Stephen's post. I'm going to take this up again when I have time. Right now, I have to get away from this computer before it drives me completely nuts.