TITLE: Meaning, Motivation, and Learning
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: August 21, 2009 3:12 PM
I talked about how hard teaching is. When you consider
everything -- from the human psychology to human
communication, from differences in student background
to differences in student temperament, from home life
to campus life, oh yeah, and course content -- students
and teachers face a big challenge. That's why I liked
the pair of
Lost in Syntax
articles so much. They remind teachers about all of
the other things students face. Even people who
teach face these challenges when they become students.
after reading "Lost in Syntax". He focused on the
source of a particular disconnect that students and
teachers may experience in the classroom: what the
course content means. Some students want to build
things, and for them meaning comes down to a set of
practical skills and a set of engineering practices.
Some students want to explore, and for them meaning
comes down to a different set of practical skills
and a way of thinking about questions and experiments.
When the instructor of a course adopts one of these
stances and uses its language, she connects well
with one group of students and often leaves the
other group confused and disoriented.
Some people, even a certain kind of university prof,
think all this talk of meaning is falderol. You
take a course, you
learn the content,
and you move on. That attitude ignores reality.
Even when all the things Wicked Teacher talks about
go right, people learn best when they are
motivated. And people are most motivated when they
know why they are learning what they are learning,
and when that "why?" fits the meaning they seek.
The best teachers start (or try to) with what a
course means for students and build the learning
experience from there. They also start with what
the students already know, or think they know,
about the course material. By using the students
as the baseline for the course, instructors are
more able to motivate students and more likely to
engage them in a way that creates real learning.
When we use the abstractions of our discipline or
our own interests as the baseline, we may well
teach a course that excites us, but it will often
fail to teach students much of anything.
Good teachers start with what a course
means for students, but they don't stop
there. The teacher's job is to lead students
forward, to help students see bigger ideas than
they can initially conceive. Even at the level
of practical skills and tools, we need to draw
students forward to skills and tools they don't
yet appreciate when they first enter the class.
Starting with what students know and care about
is the way that we build the foundation -- and
the trust -- they need to learn beyond their
imagination. That's what education is.
This is a tall order for any teacher and why I
called my previous entry "Teaching is Hard". It
is a whole lot easier to build a course atop the
discipline's abstractions or one's own interests
than to try to understand the students' minds.
Even even when we try to start with the students,
it is not an easy task.
Some people say that starting anywhere but the
intellectual foundation for the discipline is
pandering to the students. But starting with
student interests and motivations is not pandering
at all -- unless we stop there.