The logic of learning

In conversation with my MA students, I asked them to think about one piece of advice they would have liked to have through their school and junior college days to help them deal with things – both personal and academic – in a better way. Among the many answers I got were a couple that made me stop and think. More than one student in my class of 40 talked about how they wished they had been told that they didn’t have to feel like they had to be good at everything, that it was okay to not like certain subjects, that the pressure of having to do well across the curriculum made them feel like they had to fit into a set box that the school had shaped for them. In the same vein, others mentioned that teachers in school were much more critical of them and had more rigid expectations than instructors at the college level. The effect of this was that they grew up believing that education was about performance, and this performance was judged in terms of marks (nothing new there) and they were judged in terms of these marks. So everything they did – tests, assignments, classwork – was done in the shadow of these expectations.

This idea of what assignments are for – tedious necessities that have to be borne with if one wants the required marks – persists through higher education, and contributes to a situation where we have graduates with excellent grades but without the skills or understanding needed for the workplace, or for life. This happens because they do not see the applicability of the concepts and information they are forced to learn. Of course we know that this cannot be generalized, and there are schools and classrooms where children do learn with a sense of relevance and ownership and where the emphasis is on the process rather than the product. But clearly this is the exception rather than the rule.

While it’s impossible to link all learning with the “real” world, it helps to occasionally talk to students about what it all means, or how it helps build a general capacity to understand. One of the students said that she could not see why she needed to spend so much time understanding quadratic equations when all she was interested in was social studies and language! As teachers, we know that there are many arguments in favour of sticking with mathematics through school even when a child may be sure that she is not going into a field that demands much mathematical understanding. The thing is to explain, in as specific a way as possible, the logic of a wide educational base and its relationship to a wider range of life choices as one moves ahead. And to add that it’s completely okay to not be good at everything, but that most things are worth learning even when one doesn’t enjoy them or excel at them.

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