“What the inspired curriculum-maker (whatever his science) did was so refreshingly different from what we psychologists habitually did! We psychologists typically construct tasks or tests to separate the children who can from those who cannot, the former then being labeled “smarter” or “more mature.” The ideal curriculum-maker — like Socrates instructing the slave in the Meno — arranges things in such a way that everybody will understand, all will be among the ‘cans’ rather than the ‘cannots.'”
Jerome Bruner, 1983
Testing and Teaching
I began working in public schools as a school psychologist. Most of my time was spent testing students and diagnosing learning problems. Most students with reading and other difficulties were taught with methods similar to those most often recommended now, with improvement often requiring years and much effort.
Then I had the opportunity to work with experimental studies of college students and older adults. I began to think about learning differently.
I saw that we could change how people pay attention and remember. People commonly considered less able could remember more, and people with no apparent learning difficulties remembered less — depending on the materials and methods we used.
In effect, I had two different conceptual maps* about human learning with little overlap. On one hand, I had spent much time testing students who were learning less effectively, so I was used to thinking about students’ differences and whether they were eligible for support services because of diagnoses of learning disabilities. On the other, I increasingly became convinced that humans are more alike than different in how they learn, so that better methods work more effectively for everyone.
When I returned to working with elementary school students, I slowly began to realize that one of the most useful things I could do would be to find instructional materials and methods that could make all kinds of students more successful and curious learners. I also found it more useful to see how quickly a student could learn something with better materials and methods than to see IQ scores or a diagnosis.
All of us learn any new topic more deeply, accurately, and quickly when we:
- Encounter crucial and meaningful knowledge and skills explicitly and clearly in a way that makes sense
- Engage in interesting, motivating, and useful activities that focus our attention on what is most important, and
- Have adequate opportunities to explore and practice ideas and skills in different ways with helpful feedback.
I don’t want to waste time and energy with poorer materials and methods when I’m learning something new. I also enjoy teaching the most when I can share better materials and methods with kids.
Learning and teaching require dedication and perseverance. Each of us will work more effectively with some students than with others. We may enjoy learning or teaching some subjects more than others.
However, starting with better materials and methods for any subject makes being a student or teacher MUCH, MUCH more enjoyable as well as more powerful.
Please share your own insights and experiences with more effective educational materials and methods!
* We can use the idea of conceptual maps to describe the degree to which our ideas are developed, articulated, and interconnected. We can have very simple to very sophisticated and detailed conceptual maps of the things we know about. Our conceptual maps for different topics also may have few overlaps and connections, or they may be highly interconnected. Our conceptual maps may also be accurate or inaccurate to varying degrees. It is to be hoped that we improve our conceptual maps as we learn more, but this may not always be the case. Better conceptual maps are based on better information and on our developing a more accurate understanding of how what we learn is interconnected.
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