October 25, 2002

Saalon: Check out SoulHuntersStoryCards (the overview) and SoulHuntersEngineeringTasks (the nitty-gritty).

Okay, Brennen sort of threw down the gauntlet, so I’ll talk about schooling.

Here’s the cycle that I see most students fall into in school (elementary school through college):

  1. The semester begins. The students read through the material along with the teacher every day, and do their homework, but that’s it. They don’t (or can’t) pay attention on a level that’s needed to really get the material.
  2. A test approaches. The students spend lots of extra time reviewing the material that will likely be on the test, over and over.
  3. The students take the test. The cycle repeats, replacing “semester” with “testing period” or what-have-you.

Now, I’m not going to rant about how this is a completely brain-dead way of learning or teaching. This system evolved for sensible reasons, and I won’t discuss them mainly because that’s not germane to my main point. It’s not optimal, and I want to figure out ways to improve it.

Moreover, I’m not going to write about alternative teaching methods. There are lots of other ways of doing teaching — Process Learning or Extreme Teaching, for example — but I want to focus on ways to improve learning within the current “TTT” education system (“Talk-Talk Teaching”).

The current learning method employed by the vast majority of students strikes me as quite lopsided.

Let’s think about how people learn outside of formal education, but with somebody to teach them. Let’s take home repair as an example. Let’s say that I want to learn how to construct a simple play house for my children (four walls and a ceiling, plus a door). I have a friend who’s a handyman. How would I learn this skill from him?

Ideally, the contractor would take me to a home improvement store, show me what to buy and why, and help me to purchase the materials. He’d then show me how to assemble the pieces of the play house, and I’d attempt to build it. He’d offer running advice, and help me whenever I got stuck, until the play house was complete.

Now, pay attention to this part: After I assembled that play house, I should be able to construct many more play houses, without my friend’s help.

In other words, I learn this skill the first time I’m introduced to it. I may need additional help later, but the focus is on getting it right the first time, so to speak.

Contrast that with the formal education model, where students are introduced to a topic, then must review it over and over and over again before they understand it. This seems backwards.

Instead, there needs to be a focus on immediate learning, and I think that both the students and the teachers can help this.

Let’s focus on the students for now. How can students improve their “immediate learning?” By concentrating on their material at the beginning of the semester, not the end. By trying to subsume it into their subconscious as soon as possible.

This is not to suggest that students should work harder; they already do what I’m suggesting when a test looms dark on the horizon. I’m suggesting that they do it when the subject is introduced, by either the teacher or the book.

Tangent: Why does nobody read the book before class? It gives you a terrific introduction to the material, so that you’re already near the same wavelength as the teacher when the class begins.

Tangent 2: I’m struck now at the similarities between this and recent efforts (like Extreme Programming) to change software engineering. Typically, software products require tons of work near the end of the development cycle, as developers gasp under loads of bug reports. Now there are movements to shift that work towards the beginning of development. Example from a project that incorporates the new way of working:

We’re launching the beta on October 15th — just three days away! … On good teams, the days before shipping just get quieter and quieter as programmers literally run out of things to do one at a time. (Yesterday I took the day off to explore New York City with my wee niece and nephews.)
Joel Spolsky

Unfortunately, software engineering and teaching are so different that they have few useful parallels.

Back to the main point: Okay, great, so students should study the material really hard at the beginning of the semester. Why?

  • It gives you time later in the semester.
  • It gives you a concrete foundation in the material, so that you don’t have to learn simple concepts later in the semester when you’re introduced to more difficult concepts.
  • It’s more similar to the natural way of learning than traditional, formal education.

There are probably other advantages, but these are all I can think of at the moment.

Now, how about methods to improve the student’s retention of these concepts? Our example provides an important concept: practical application. Even if the class doesn’t provide the opportunity to use the skills you’re learning, do it yourself. Assign yourself a project that you can only do with the skills you’ll learn. Do it for real.

Wow. This is turning into a manifesto. I might be able to come up with a real, practical methodology out of this. Extreme Learning, perhaps?

Either way, I’ve run out of steam. Let’s chew on this for awhile. Would someone care to post their own thoughts?

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