Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, came to BYU campus when I was finishing up my final semester there this spring. He shared some really interesting and refreshing concepts related to the brain and how people learn.
To give you an example of some of the kinds of things he shared check out this interesting and important concept from his book Why Students Don't Like School:
|It is a good book.|
Researchers have examined student opinion surveys of their college professors to find out which professors get good ratings and why. A two-item survey would be almost as useful as the thirty-item survey, because all of the questions really boil down to two: Does the professor seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized?" (p. 50)
Although K-12 students don't complete questionnaires about their teachers, we know that more or less the same thing is true for them. The emotional bond between students and teachers --for better or for worse -- accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won't be much good either." (p. 50-51)
So what do I mean when I say I may be on the wrong track? Well, what is the name of this blog? The Relevant Classroom. Yup. And I talk all about how relevance is so important and we need to turn to popular culture media more often because that is what kids are consuming so we must help them connect their entertainment to the real world. My somewhat idealistic agenda sounds nice, but the problem is it may not only be ineffective--my goal to make everything being taught in the classroom relevant to students could very well be destructive to student learning.
Professor Willingham writes (and I sort of trust him since he does the research and cites it all very clearly): "Trying to make the material relevant to students' interests doesn't work." He goes on to say:
Content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interests is maintained . . . so if content won't do it, how about style? Students often refer to good teachers as those who "make stuff interesting." It's not that the teacher relates the material to students' interests - rather, the teacher has a way of interacting with students that they find engaging. (p. 49-50)As I read this I experienced a mini rocket ride through the stages of grief. What?! Making material relevant to students' interests doesn't work? How can that be? This guy is nuts. Oh, and yes it turns out he doesn't believe there is such thing really as learning styles, or at least they aren't worth bothering about. I went to my wife and explained that I might have to trash my blog, or at least the title of it, and that basically my whole passion is ruined.
|Professor Willingham is a Cognitive|
Scientist at the University of Virigina -
and he is a pretty great thinker
"I've always been bothered by the advice 'make it relevant to the students,' for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn't apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way that they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students' lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it's phony. Second, if I can't convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn't teach it? If I'm continually trying to build bridges between student's daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me. I'm not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I'm suggesting is that student interests shouldn't not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas." (p. 65)As I read this I thought, "Yes! Exactly." Relevance does have a place, but it is a strategic and limited one. I still think Daniel Pink is right when he says relevance is the 4th R after "reading, writing, and arithmetic," but Willingham's point is valid. If I spend the majority of my time trying to help students see the connection of the Pythagorean theorem or the genus and species of a particular animal in the Mongol desert to their own life rather than on growing their brains and becoming world citizens then what will they remember?
Memory is the residue of thought. To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember. (p. 41)It turns out that what students spend time thinking about is what they remember. Thus when wielding the tools of relevance, one must consider carefully whether doing so will help students focus more on the skill and objective of the lesson, or simply act as a memory distractor in the future progress of the student. Lesson learned.
So an example of how this concept might play out could be something like the following. Say we are talking about the Civil War in 5th grade. I think to myself, "Oh I want to use popular culture to help the students see the relevance of the war's impact on their lives. I think I will show a clip of Glory with a follow up clip of Gone With The Wind and later a clip of The Help to illustrate the details of the war and the continued impact of segregation and racism in America." Potentially this could be pretty interesting (in my opinion), but there is a huge danger of the students walking away from that only remember that they watched some movie clips and that it was cool to not have to do any work.
Yes, pop culture and media can and should be used. No, it should not cause students to spend time thinking about something outside of the objective set forth in the lesson.
See Professor Willingham's blog or check out his book for more interesting and helpful research that is easy to read and apply.