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Wineburg — Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (chapters 1 and 2)

February 10th, 2010

The first chapter of the Wineburg selection was interesting for me in the way that it traced out expert behavior in essentially moral terms — that to be an expert in a field means having a basically humble stance toward the subject matter. To know how to do history becomes important, then, since dealing with the knowledge that we are inextricably bound by our own historical position and that we necessarily have to attempt to unstick ourselves from that position, regardless of the impossibility of actually transcending our material circumstances, requires a “humility before the narrowness of our contemporary experience and an openness before the expanse of the history of the species.” This is fascinating to me; it is the study of history as philosophy, but philosophy in the very old, very humanistic “how shall we live?” sense. The teaching of history (and the humanities in general), becomes a means to make people who are better at life; it’s ethics as craft.

The second chapter then reads to me like practices that encourage that humility, in the form of teaching that’s meant to draw out complexity rather than answer questions. As with most of the material on teaching that we’ve read in core 1 and so far in this class, the question I’m left with is whether there’s any space right now in the public schools we have now for generating complexity, or if the grim presence of standardized tests focusing on more easily assessable metrics has squeezed out the opportunity for humanistic, ethics-as-craft teaching altogether.

Some thoughts on How People Learn 6-8

February 10th, 2010

So, several aspects of “How People Learn” were very refreshing to read, among them:

  • The focus on the importance of content in teaching, and moreover multiple types of content — both the content of the subject and pedagogical content knowledge.
  • The focus on a sort of productive ignorance, which is short-circuited for all sorts of learners, even teachers-as-learners, by environments which persuade learners to focus on not making errors.
  • But most especially, the way the text manages to simultaneously respect the differences between the strategies required to teach different content, while also consistently clustering or chunking these different strategies around deep underlying patterns. It seems to me that regardless of the domain being taught (history, math, physics, and even teaching itself), they present successful strategies as being based around not so much memorizing the content data of the field, but instead learning the characteristic ways of arranging data among practitioners of those fields, and the strengths of those methods of arrangement, and connecting those chunking methods to pre-existing strategies used by the learner and to the learner’s environment.

Now, this popped out for me for an array of reasons. One is the sheer joy of uncovering self-reference; I kept thinking “aha! they’re using their own strategies!” when they’d demonstrate the deep-level way that superficially different learning strategies deployed by experts in different fields ultimately resembled each other on a more significant level. Second, though, is that it got me thinking not just about the links between how experts in different fields approach their material, or just about how to teach that, but also about how it seems like teaching and design seem to share a lot of common features.
The word “metacognitive” shows up a lot in writing from rhetoric and composition, but to me, it seems like the useful term might be “metadata.” As our readings from the first week noted, the problem with managing information systems right now isn’t gathering information (in every significant field, there’s already too much of it for any human to handle), but instead presenting that data in ways that help users find the data that’s useful for them and that encourage them to link it in fruitful ways. Key to this is the concept of metadata — of marking documents with data that describes the nature of that document. Library catalog stuff — the title, the creator, the date of publication, and so forth — is generally included in metadata, but things like the tags that users can apply to posts on the Commons are metadata. Building a useful information system for use by academics seems weirdly similar to designing an effective curriculum. The goal in both places isn’t to provide all the information that needs to be covered, since there’s always going to be too much information to cover, but is instead to present information with the right metadata — metadata that indicates some of the useful rather than superficial connections that can be made discrete bits of information — and then encourage the learners or researchers to play with those connections.
Okay, looking back on that paragraph I’m realizing it’s more mechanistic than it should be — I guess the core “gee whiz!” realization is just that teaching and learning, in the model they present, seems to be about building useful connections between bits of information, and also that there’s a lot of work going on in fairly dry-seeming corners of information technology to implement that sort of connection-building in code.

How People Learn Chapters 1-3

February 8th, 2010

For the first three chapters these are a few points that stood out for me.

Children and adults are alike in the classroom in that everyone brings their own set of preexisting understandings.  Page 16 gives an example where a college student reverted to untrained conceptions despite having learned the relevant physics.  In a college classroom, with often large class sizes, how do you go about finding the preexisting conceptions that students have and addressing these?

Looking at teaching / learning methods at tools, there are many to choose from.  Even more now with technology based tools.  So how do you know what to use when?  I wonder if the possibly overwhelming number of choices and the lack of teacher support is one reason that teachers continue to teach the way they always have, rather than adapt with new methods.

On experts and novices, I know a little about a lot of things.  I find the tidbits interesting, but wouldn’t necessarily want to dive deeper into the topic.  Choice of topic and how an expert learns and studies new information is different.  How do teachers teach all of the information that needs to be covered in a class and allow for the cross from novice to expert in understanding?

Transfer of knowledge from one area to another is a topic I am interested in.  What are some techniques you have used to help students use preexisting or already learned knowledge to transfer to new material?

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