02 October 2007

What Not to Do

Sometimes, it is most important not to do make students do things, especially when the norms of instruction work against the way many kids learn...

For example - countless hours are wasted in maths classes everywhere trying to get kids to remember formulas - that "stuff at the front of the book." This is a massive waste of cognitive effort and educational time. Students need to know how to find the appropriate formula and how to recognize that this is the right formula to use. But in the three millennia since literacy was invented, the need for this kind of nonsensical memorization has vanished. This is, obviously, particularly important for students who often fall into the dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, etc - because this group often struggles with the adaptation of short term memory to long-term memory and with fully accurate symbol recall (for many of these students a formula would have to be recalled as a precise picture for it to be of any use).

So, hand out a notebook insert listing all the formulas along with keywords to suggest use. You will then be using your educational time - and your students' cognitive effort - on real world tasks, the assembly of knowledge and the effective ability to work with data.

Likewise, the recall of dates remains the most worthless of academic pursuits. Again, in history classrooms worldwide so much time and effort is tossed away on this nonsense that it is no surprise that students know so little actual history. A former professor of mine used to say, "I don't care at all about dates, but I want you to understand which events preceeded which other events." In other words, the dates of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia, Franz-Ferdinand's assassination, and the start of The Great War are trivia, easily looked up via Google or Wikipedia. But it is vital to know that these events occured in sequence, or they don't make sense. If you waste your students' time forcing memorization of dates a student might get 2/3 of "that question" correct - answering (a - Austrian Annexation): 1919 - (b - Franz Ferdinand's assassination): June 1914 - (c - start of The Great War): August 1914. This would be "passing" in most schools and yet it would be completely wrong - a fundamental misunderstanding of history caused by focusing on numbers which have no value.

This kind of cognitive waste goes on in almost every subject. It goes along with a devotion to questions which can be answered on multiple-choice or short-answer tests. It goes along with panic about cheating. It goes along with the fallacy of "standards-based" education. And it not only severly damages students with certain cognitive, learning, or attentional issues - it limits the possibilities for learning by all students.

- Ira Socol

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