Monday, February 10, 2014

Learning how to learn as important as what you learn

By Scott Powers 
Chief Learning Officer

The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and the British surgeon Joseph Lister made extraordinary contributions to the world in the 19th century. Pasteur's work in microbiology provided support for the germ theory of disease and advanced the concept of vaccination. Lister was the first to develop antiseptic surgical methods. He introduced the use of carbolic acid to sterilize surgical instruments and to clean wounds, which made surgery safer for patients. Before the introduction of vaccination and antisepsis, people commonly died due to unsanitary conditions in the home, or following surgery, or even childbirth. These breakthroughs in medicine have saved millions of lives and are among the greatest discoveries of the 19th century.

Today, when you need medical care you would want a practitioner whose training accounted for the contributions of these two men. My guess is, however, you would not actually want one of these two men providing your care, or anyone from the 19th century for that matter. After all, much learning has taken place since then.

I read an article recently that suggests it's time to revive good, old-fashioned education. Journalist Joanne Lipman asserts, in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results, that “a kinder, gentler philosophy” has errantly “dominated American education over the past few decades” and that "conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students…” and that “projects and collaborative learning are applauded…” while “...traditional methods like lecturing and memorization--derided as 'drill and kill'-- are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation."

Not even addressing Lipman's misconception about conventional wisdom, her perspective makes me nervous. Not because the concept of good, old-fashioned is bad. It’s not. I associate good, old-fashioned with a beginning, not an end; with a foundation, something upon which to build, to grow, to learn. But as an educator, I want to be sure that in our schools we account for today’s context, for new understanding about how people learn, what motivates them, and what people need out of an education for today and tomorrow.

Today for instance, learning how to learn in school is as important as what you learn. The most sought-after skill-sets for workforce recruiters are becoming less and less about proficiency in basic skills and more about how you think. Remembering something is one thing. Having the mindset to apply what you know and what you are learning is another. According to an analysis conducted by Forbes, using O*NET, the U.S. clearinghouse of occupational information, among the top 10 most in-demand skills of 2013 were things like critical thinking, complex problem solving, decision making, and listening. That’s right, listening.

Long story short? It's not enough to know things, you have to be able to do things; to think, to solve, to create. Not either/or. Both.

Navasota and Grimes County boast many things that represent both good, old-fashioned values and important expressions of growth and progress at the same time. One recent example highlighted in The Examiner is the Navasota Artist in Residence Program that has transformed one of the city's Texas Historical Commission Listings, the Robert A. Horlock House, into an art gallery, museum, retail space, and home through which the work of professional artists will contribute to the area's economy, culture, and educational opportunities. It's progress with good, old-fashioned roots. Not either/or, but both.

What makes me nervous about the argument Lipman makes with respect to education is that she frames the discussion as an either/or proposition. That somehow we must choose between what we know and what we are learning; between good, old-fashioned and progress. Ironically, her argument about learning does not account for, well, learning. While Lipman outlines a number of interesting discoveries across the social sciences, her synthesis does not support the argument that good, old-fashioned education is enough.

The reason?

It's not an either/or proposition. It's not memorization or inquiry. It's not lecturing or projects. It's not independent practice or collaboration. It's not having kind teachers or demanding teachers. It's both in each case. It's all of them. Lipman’s argument is not wrong. It just falls short. Good, old-fashioned is a beginning, the start of something profound and wonderful. But it's not enough by itself. Not anymore.

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