Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski cover a lot of ground in Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying. Yes, it’s chock-full of neuroscience, goofy (and memorable) images, very practical tips, and bracing exhortations.
Yet it’s not really about about “quick-fixes” or even, as the kids say theses days, “hacks.” The book’s more profound take-aways for folks who work in the education business, as teachers, policy-makers, or leaders are:
- Metaphors matter when it comes to learning anything;
- Mastery requires deliberate practice.
I think that if folks got their head around the first point, so much else would fall into place. I believe that bad metaphors or a poor understanding of how they work is at the root of many issues, including our current polarized political climate. Allow me to justify this claim.
We speak and think in metaphors all the time without noticing. Part of this is because a lot of our metaphors are so worn that they have lost the force of the original meaning. Part of it is because metaphorical communication is the only way to tell a truth about the world, at least as well as we can understand it.
Kids learn this way – by comparing one thing or process with another, unfamiliar thing or process.
The more they know about the world, the more they can name and describe things, or relate them to stories that they know, the more quickly they can assimilate and/or discard comparisons that no longer hold. The fewer stories they know, the fewer connections or conjectures they can make when faced with novel situations.
So far, so good. What does this have to do with polarization?
I’m convinced that pedagogy that focuses on strategies or skills for reading comprehension falls prey (see, that’s a metaphor) to the false notion that thinking can be divorced from meaning. That’s why I really don’t like the phrase “critical thinking.” Thinking occurs when we are thinking about something.
But if kids are deprived of knowledge about the cultural web of metaphors, allusions, and references that we’ve all created through our speech, how can we expect them to become curious about things? Eager to read to learn?
Here is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler, as cited by a recent Knowledge Matters Campaign release on NAEP scores. I just ran across it today, and I CANNOT wait to read the book. I think it demonstrates this point with perfect (and tragic) clarity:
In Ms. Arredondo’s first-grade classroom, the focus of the lesson is the skill of identifying captions, after a recent test showed that most students couldn’t distinguish them from subtitles.
Ms. Arredondo is trying to get the kids to understand the concept of a caption, which she’s explained before: it’s a label that tells us about a picture. When it’s clear the kids don’t remember the definition, she tells them again.
But the kids have trouble grasping the idea. “Words?” one student ventures, when asked to repeat the definition. What the students are interested in is what’s going on in the pictures. When Ms. Arredondo shows the children a book with a picture of a shark, they’re eager to know what the shark is eating. When she shows them a picture of a planet, they want to know if it’s the moon. But Ms. Arredondo doesn’t answer these questions, because the point is not to have students learn about sharks or planets but to identify the captions that go with the pictures.
By the time she shows the students a funny photograph of a bunch of goats that have climbed a tree–a photo that cries out for an explanation–they don’t even ask about it. It’s not clear they’ve learned what a caption is, but they seem to have learned that their questions about the content of the photos aren’t going to be answered.
One of the arguments in favor of reading used to be that it gave you the experience of getting out of your own skin and experiencing the world through the eyes of another, only to discover that you had more in common with them than you initially thought. In other worlds, fiction helps develop your theory of mind and your imagination. One might even go so far as to say your empathy.
But if kids don’t read books that stretch them much past their own experiences or lives and they are taught that books are really just an exercise in “getting to the main idea,” for instance, they won’t be able to:
- Understand that other people have inner lives and motives too, and that disagreements do not make them your enemy
- Comprehend arguments that draw on historical comparisons or philosophical schools of thought that are unfamiliar
- Have a nexus of diverse metaphors into which they can weave or challenge new ideas.
Kids who learn about, say, the Roman Monarchy, Republic, and Empire, are arguably on a far better footing later in life when it comes time to learn about the American Revolution. What made it so radical? What ancient examples were the founders both drawing on and resisting? Were they successful? If so, how so? If not, why not?
We lament the state of civics education in this country. And we are right to do so. But that’s a symptom of (and I use this in its literal, not pejorative sense) ignorance. The word ignorant simply means “without knowledge.” We can’t blame the students. The educational system has in many cases been rigged specifically against imparting knowledge.
We’ll take a closer look at what deliberate practice is and why it’s so important on Monday.