Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why kids don't like school

I've been frustrated with the chaotic state of education, the swirling stream of ideas about what works and what doesn't. What we need is more scientific research on the topic.

That's why I am excited to begin Hattie and Yate's Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. It promises to lay out the current state of the science of learning, and though I take that with a bit of a grain of salt, I am looking forward to having my own beliefs challenged.

The book starts with a bang, addressing the question: "Why don't kids like school?" And their answer is twofold. First of all, they sort of like it (avg. between 0 and 1 on a scale of -2 to +2).

But why don't they love it? It's all about the brain, they say. Our brains are really not for thinking--for extending knowledge beyond what we currently know. They are better suited to working from memory, working with what they already have. What we ask kids to do every day all day--acquire new knowledge, is harder than this, and so it's not really that pleasant. They argue that our large cerebral cortex is not really for writing theorems, but for dealing with complex social interactions.

Makes sense--I'm not sure I buy their whole the-brain-is-not-really-for-thinking concept, and they don't present a particular strong case. But one part seems clear, and very practical: They note that, while we as humans are motivated by knowledge gaps, we are put off by knowledge chasms. Most of us have little interest in how our computer works, because we know next to nothing about it, and it seems daunting. AND, the fear of failure outweighs the attraction of reward.

This is key, then. To increase motivation, connect the objectives to something the students already know (of course), but not only that, make it an extension of their current knowledge, a new, small, piece of the puzzle they are already working on, and already care about, rather than something totally new.

I'm guessing most teachers do this to some extent already, and maybe I'm behind the curve, but it definitely elevates the importance of pre-assessment and student voice and understanding where your students are before even trying to teach them. We can't just start with some pie-in-the-sky standards and expect to magically (or forcefully) insert them into students' minds.

As Hattie and Yates write: "Learning is optimized when teachers see learning through the eyes of the learner, and when learners see themselves as their own teachers."

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