Sean Finegan

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Sean  Finegan     11/5/2009   An  Attempt  at  Teaching  Learning    

Deep   learning   is   by   nature   next   to   impossible   to   teach   in   school   because   it  

relies   so   heavily   on   students’   self-­‐motivation.     A   deep   learner   can   always   be   recognized   by   the   way   he   articulates   his   scholastic   experiences.     Instead   of   recounting  which  books  he  was  assigned  for  class,  he  recalls  specific  discussions  or   readings  that  struck  him  on  a  more  personal  note.    In  his  book,  What  the  Best  College   Teachers  Do,  Ken  Bain  mentions  that  deep  learners  will  speak  about  “developing  an   understanding,   making   something   their   own,   ‘getting   into   it’,   and   making   sense   of   it   all”   (9).     This   is   not   easy   for   every   schoolchild   to   do,   however.     There   are   many   variables,   one   being   a   simple   lack   of   interest   for   a   subject,   that   can   make   deep   learning  impractical  for  the  pupil  at  any  age,  however  one  of  the  biggest  obstacles  to   deep   learning   at   the   college   level   are   the   inimical   study   habits   that   have   been   perpetuated  over  prior  years  of  schooling.    

To   understand   the   fundamental   impediment   of   primary   education   on   deep  

learning,   you   must   first   consider   the   means   through   which   we   acquire   knowledge   during   these   years.     In   the   course   of   the   early   educational   process   students   are   expected  to  read  books  and  listen  to  their  teachers  in  order  to  correctly  answer  on  a   test   that,   for   example,   Christopher   Columbus   discovered   America   in   1492.     Students   are  taught  through  classroom  experience  that  the  more  “facts”  they  learn,  the  better   they   will   score   on   tests.     With   good   test   scores   come   good   grades   and   the  

 

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accumulation   of   credits,   which   in   turn   lead   to   diplomas   and   degrees   and   so   forth.     Now   although   these   awards   and   honors   may   be   important   in   the   rat   race,   the   students  miss  out  on  any  understanding  of  the  relationship  that  these  so-­‐called  facts   have  with  actual  knowledge.       Success  in  the  typical  elementary,  middle,  or  high  school  class  requires  that   students   become   what   Bain   calls   “bulimic   learners”.     Students   must   memorize   a   “feast”   of   information   from   one   chapter,   regurgitate   it   on   the   test,   and   then   purge   their  brain  of  what  they  just  crammed  to  make  room  for  the  next  chapter  of  material   (41).     This   of   course   leads   to   short-­‐term   thinking   and   restrains   knowledge   to   the   specific  point  of  view  of  the  textbook  or  the  teacher.    Tests  written  straight  from  the   history   book   inherently   assume   that   a   fact   is   a   fact   and   is   either   true   or   false,   without   further   investigation.     Deep   learning   requires   us   to   call   into   question   the   origin  of  information  rather  than  accept  single  pieces  of  data.    As  William  Perry  asks   in  his  essay  Examsmanship  and  the  Liberal  Arts:     By   whose   calendar   is   it   proper   to   say   that   Columbus   discovered   America   in   1492?   How,   when   and   by   whom   was   the   year   1   established?    What  of  other  calendars?    In  view  of  the  evidence  for  Leif   Ericson’s   previous   visit   (and   the   American   Indians),   what   historical   ethnocentrism   is   suggested   by   the   use   of   the   word   ‘discover’   in   this   sentence?  (245)  

 

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“These  questions  and  their  answers,”  Perry  states,  “are  not  ‘more’  knowledge.  They   are  devastation”  (245).    This  line  of  questioning  undermines  the  superficial  method   used  to  teach  students  and  evaluate  their  proficiency  in  the  classroom.    

Perry  makes  the  point  that  “we  have  something  to  learn  about  ‘what  we  think  

knowledge  is’  by  having  a  good  look  at  ‘what  we  do  when  we  go  about  measuring  it’”   (235).     Exams   taken   during   the   pre-­‐collegiate   stages   of   education   mislead   us   to   believe  that  there  is  always  one  correct  answer.    The  goal  of  higher  education  is  to   challenge   this   theory.     Perry   writes   about   examsmanship   at   the   college   level,   and   extensively  analyzes  the  concepts  of  “cow”  and  “bull”  writing.    In  their  purest  form,   cow  is  data  without  relevancies,  and  bull  is  relevancies  unsupported  by  data  (241).     The  majority  of  bulimic  learners  write  cow  because  they  are  trained  to  remember  as   much   of   the   material   as   possible   and   recite   it   on   their   exam.     Students   are   accustomed  to  being  rewarded  for  this  style  of  writing  because  it  proves  that  they   worked  hard  and  spent  time  studying  the  material,  however  to  a  college  professor   these  papers  do  not  demonstrate  any  true  understanding.        

Because  teaching  students  “how  to  think”,  instead  of  “what  to  think”,  should  

be   the   goal   of   a   liberal   education,   professors   are   less   concerned   about   the   schooling   of  the  pupil  who,     Has  come  to  understand  the  nature  of  man’s  knowledge,  even  though   he  has  not  yet  committed  himself  to  hard  work,  than  [they  are]  about   the   education   of   the   student   who…   is   working   desperately   hard   and   still  believes  that  collected  ‘facts’  constitute  knowledge.  (Perry  244)      

 

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This   leads   us   to   the   conclusion   that,   in   the   eyes   of   the   liberal   arts   professor,   good   bull   (writing   which   demonstrates   an   understanding   of   the   context   within   which   the   data  was   collected)   is,   in   practice  “of  more  value  than  ‘facts,’  which,  without  a  frame   of   reference,   are   not   even   ‘true’   at   all”   (243).     Students   who   receive   a   high   grade   for   this  writing  may  feel  undeserving  because  of  the  notion  that  bull  is  less  “moral”  than   cow;  however,  it  is  no  surprise  that  professors  prefer  to  grade  papers  offering  new   insights   and   relationships   that   were   not   spoon-­‐fed   from   a   book.     Perry   notes   that   after   wearingly   grading   pages   and   pages   of   factual   regurgitation,   “the   sudden   meeting   with   a   student   who   at   least   understands   the   problems   of   one’s   field   provides   a   lift   like   a   draught   of   refreshing   wine,   and   a   strong   disposition   toward   trust”  (243).    This  trust  that  the  professor  feels  towards  the  pupil  who  writes  good   bull  is  much  different,  and  considerably  more  intimate,  than  the  confidence  he  has  in   even  the  most  diligent  cow  writer  (244).      

So   in   order   to   demonstrate   that   you   know   “how   to   think”,   the   first   necessary  

step   is   dropping   the   concept   of   “true-­‐or-­‐false”   thinking   altogether.     Absolute   answers,  as  convenient  as  they  may  be,  cannot  exist  in  an  intellectual  environment   because   they   are   merely   observations   from   one   frame   of   reference.     To   truly   benefit   from   a   liberal   education,   you   must   be   aware   of   the   contexts   from   which   you   acquire   information,  and  of  the  assumptions  and  biases  (such  as  ethnocentrism  in  the  case   of  Columbus)  that  they  entail.    Additionally,  you  must  examine  data  from  different   perspectives   and   associate   your   learning   with   personal   experiences.     Comprehending   the   relationship   between   man   and   his   knowledge   assures   faster   and  more  meaningful  learning,  as  well  as  the  ability  to  retain  it  (244).    

 

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Liberal  art  professors  have  the  tricky  task  of  helping  students  learn  “how  to  

think”   about   knowledge.     However,   as   stated   previously,   deep   learning   requires,   more   than   anything   else,   strong   will   power   on   the   students’   part.     Walker   Percy,   author   of   “The   Loss   of   Creature”,   can   attest   to   the   struggle   involved   in   “getting   students   into   it.”     The   difficulty,   Percy   believes,   stems   from   the   “educational   packaging”   in   which   students   receive   schoolwork.     This   idea   of   educational   packaging   is   part   of   a   larger   concept,   “the   symbolic   complex,”   which   relates   to   tourism,  laboratory  science,  and  Shakespearean  literature.        

In  the  example  of  visiting  the  Grand  Canyon,  the  sightseer  has  a  preconceived  

notion  of  what  his  visit  “should”  be  like  based  on  a  combination  of  picture  postcards,   geography  books,  tourist  folders,  and  the  mere  name:  The  Grand  Canyon  (482).    This   symbolic   complex   makes   it   impossible   to   truly   see   the   canyon   at   all;   furthermore,   sightseers  become  incapable  of  having  any  sort  of  sovereign  experience  like  Garcia   López  de  Cárdenas.  In  the  classroom  setting,  Percy  suggests  that,     A   student   who   has   the   desire   to   get   at   a   dogfish   or   a   Shakespeare   sonnet   may   have   the   greatest   difficulty   in   salvaging   the   creature   itself   from   the   educational   package   in   which   it   is   presented.   The   great   difficulty   is   that   he   is   not   aware   that   there   is   a   difficulty;   surely,   he   thinks,  in  such  a  fine  classroom,  with  such  a  fine  textbook,  the  sonnet   must  come  across!  (489)      

 

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And  herein  lies  the  difficulty  of  encouraging  deep  learning  in  the  classroom.    Many   students   may   try   very   hard   to   “get   at”   the   material   without   understanding   that   it   needs  to  be  “unpackaged”.        

This   problem   persists   from   the   textbook   to   the   science   lab,   and   even   into   the  

art  museum.    Any  student  can  look  at  an  ancient  Roman  sculpture  and  see  that  it  is  a   beautiful   work   of   art;   the   question   is   whether   he   can   pull   it   out   of   its   symbolic   complex.    In  an  exhibit  filled  with  marble  artifacts,  what  does  one  sculpture  mean  to   a   humanities   student   that   the   one   next   to   it   does   not?     Although   it   may   have   a   description   box   explaining   its   origin   or   the   social   significance   of   its   time,   it   is   impossible  to  grasp  the  individuality  of  each  piece.    The  art  is  no  longer  unique,  but   merely   a   specimen   of   all   marble   works.     The   kind   of   undeveloped   thinking   that   results  from  this  manner  of  schooling  must  be  avoided  not  only  because  it  hinders   deep  learning,  but  also  because  it  leads  to  hasty  generalizations.        

Looking   at   a   dogfish   or   a   sonnet   or   a   marble   sculpture   in   attempts   to  

understand   all   dogfish,   sonnets,   or   sculptures   “is   the   mistaking   of   an   idea,   a   principle,  an  abstraction,  for  the  real.  As  a  consequence  of  the  shift,  the  ‘specimen’  is   seen   as   less   real   than   the   theory   of   the   specimen;”   (490)   so   it   follows   that   individuals   will   cease   to   exist,   and   will   be   replaced   simply   by   specimens   of   a   race.     This   type   of   superficial   understanding   causes   discrimination   and   prejudice   that   directly   oppose   deep   learning.     So   how   do   we   truly   learn   anything   with   so   much   symbolic  packaging  in  and  outside  of  the  classroom?  

 

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This   question   can   be   answered   by   uncovering   the   root   of   the   symbolic  

packaging.    Part  of  the  symbolic  packaging  is  due  to  students’  trust  in  literature.    In   Ralph  Waldo  Emerson’s  lecture,  “The  American  Scholar”,  he  reminds  us  that  “meek   young   men   grow   up   in   libraries,   believing   it   their   duty   to   accept   the   views,   which   Cicero,   which   Locke,   which   Bacon,   have   given,   forgetful   that   Cicero,   Locke,   and   Bacon   were   only   young   men   in   libraries,   when   they   wrote   these   books”   (57).     His   point   is   that   we   cannot   constitute   the   writing   of   these   “experts”   as   our   own   knowledge.    When  Emerson  says,  “it  came  to  him,  life;  it  went  out  from  him,  truth,”   (56)   he   is   suggesting   that   the   literature   we   learn   from   is   merely   the   writer’s   sovereign  experience  transmuted  onto  paper.    This  relates  to  his  notion  of  the  active   soul,  which  is  the  power  every  man  needs  in  order  to  create.    “The  soul  active  sees   absolute   truth”   (57).     This   is   the   root   of   human   progression.     He   continues   to   say   that   each   generation   must   create   their   own   books   from   their   own   experiences,   because   many   people   misinterpret   the   use   of   books.     Books   are   to   be   used   for   nothing   but   to   inspire.     Books   can   be   a   great   influence   on   writers   and   scholars   in   general,   but   Emerson’s   concept   of   self-­‐trust   is   of   greater   importance   in   regards   to   deep  learning.    

Percy  has  a  similar  viewpoint  on  self-­‐trust  and  its  importance.    A  large  part  of  

the  symbolic  packaging  is  due  to  our  “eager  surrender  of  sovereignty  by  the  layman”   (Percy   487).     Thinking   back   on   our   time   in   the   sandbox   as   a   child   we   remember   playing   with   other   kids   without   a   care   in   the   world   as   to   their   name,   their   background,  or  whether  they  are  “good  people”.    As  we  grew  older  we  begin  making   judgments  on  people  right  from  the  start,  and  we  often  times  look  at  others  more  as  

 

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consumer  items  than  as  individuals.    “Too  often  we  submit  ourselves  to  the  role  of   consumer  and  waive  our  sovereign  rights  as  a  person”  (Percy  493),  and  the  problem   is   that   nobody   is   safe   from   this   change;   everybody   loses   their   ability   to   see   things   with  virgin  eyes.    But  this  does  not  mean  that  at  a  certain  age  we  lose  our  ability  to   create  sovereign  experience.    The  key  is  knowing  that  there  is  a  struggle  to  recover   the  dogfish,  the  sonnet,  the  sculpture,  and  even  our  relationships  with  others  from   the   symbolic   complex.     We   need   to   have   faith   in   our   own   power   to   discover   and   expand  our  wealth  of  knowledge.        

Percy   and   Emerson   would   both   agree   that   books   and   schooling   are   very  

important  in  the  education  of  any  scholar;  however,  they  also  know  that  sovereign   experiences   and   the   active   soul   are   what   lead   society   forward.     The   overall   thesis   of   Perry’s   essay   on   examsmanship   is   that   “cow   and   bull   are   not   poles   of   a   single   dimension”,   and   the   goal   of   good   writing   is   not   “to   ‘find   the   right   mean’   between   ‘amounts’  of  detail  and  ‘amounts’  of  generalities”  (241).    The  best  paper  is  rather  the   one   that   is   able   to   blend   the   two   until   they   become   indiscernible   from   each   other.     This  same  abstraction  can  be  used  to  relate  to  deep  learning.    Knowledge  is  not  an   “infertile   hermaphrodite”   between   the   written   thoughts   of   the   past   and   the   active   soul  of  the  present,  just  as  it  is  not  a  certain  amount  of  sovereign  experience  mixed   with  expert  testimony.    There  is  a  middle  ground  that  is  not  measured  by  the  total   quantities   of   either,   but   rather   by   the   overall   outcome.     Deep   learning   is   about   developing   an   understanding   and   making   sense   of   it   all   (Bain   9),   and   the   goal   of   education   is   not   to   become   a   consumer   of   facts   and   experiences,   but   rather   to   express  your  own  individuality  and  sovereignty  (Percy  493).      

 

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In   the   end,   deep   learning   can   be   achieved   by   realizing   and   overcoming   the  

temptation   of   accepting   thoughts   the   way   they   are   presented   to   you,   and   by   struggling   to   grasp   their   true   meaning.     Exploration   is   a   vital   tool   in   “getting   into   it”.   Genuine   learning   is   reliant   upon   the   student’s   ability   to   take   the   dogfish,   the   sonnet,   and  the  sculpture  out  of  the  lab,  the  classroom,  or  the  museum,  and  to  understand   its   original   context.     “Life   is   our   dictionary”   (Emerson   61),   and   although   you   may   never   find   definition   for   all   of   its   words,   you   must   personalize   the   words   you   do   find.  

 

10   Works  Cited    

Bain,  Ken.  What  the  Best  College  Teachers  Do.    Cambridge,  MA:  Harvard  U  P,  2004.   Emerson,  Ralph  Waldo.    “The  American  Scholar.”  In  Essays  and  Lectures.    Ed.  Joel   Porte.  New  York,  NY:  Library  Classics  (Library  of  America),  1983.  51-­‐71.   Percy,  Walker.  “The  Loss  of  the  Creature.”  In  Ways  of  Reading:  An  Anthology  for   Writers.    8th  ed.  Ed.  David  Bartholomae  and  Anthony  Petrosky.  Boston,  MA:   Bedford/St.  Martin’s,  2008.  480-­‐493.     Perry,  William  G.  Jr.    “Examsmanship  and  the  Liberal  Arts:  An  Epistemological   Inquiry.”  In  The  Writer’s  Home  Companion:  An  Anthology  of  the  World’s  Best   Writing  Advice,  from  Keats  to  Kunitz.  Ed.  Joan  Bolker.  New  York,  NY:  Henry   Holt,  1997.  234-­‐250.    

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Sean Finegan

  1   Sean  Finegan     11/5/2009   An  Attempt  at  Teaching  Learning     Deep   learning   is   by   nature   next   to   impossible   to   tea...

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