Available at http://www.brett-tipton.com/store.html
Teaching methods ought to be based on the way people learn. That statement seems so obvious I almost feel ludicrous stating it, but it has to be stated. So much of what is done in the education system is completely contrary to this simple idea. So, as a starting point let me describe to you how the brain functions.
The brain is like a giant computer connected to the body. Just like a computer, it has inputs devices. These input devices are our senses: touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. Sensory information is inputted to the brain. The brain processes that information. Then, the brain outputs what it has processed to the body. This simple cycle of input-process-output is the learning process in a nutshell.
Let’s consider the brain as a learning factory. Just like a factory it has shipping and receiving. In an actual factory, the receiving department takes in raw materials. These raw materials will later be turned into a product. That product will then be sent to the customers by the shipping department. In many companies shipping and receiving are combined together into one department. In the brain it isn’t quite so simple, but these two departments are closely linked. Both are found at the point the brain intersects with the body and both deal with electrochemical impulses being sent through a great network of nerves.
Obviously, I’m simplifying the function of the brain. No one fully understands how it operates. But, the shipping and receiving analogy is an accurate one and helps illuminate the learning process.
In any factory, much occurs between when raw materials are taken in and when completed products are shipping out. I’m going to use common functions seen within a factory to explain what goes on between input and output.
Our survival depends on our brain making sense of its environment. After it makes sense of things it has to figure out what to do with this sense-making. So, it has functions similar to research and development. This research and development could be broken down into two distinct phases: 1) Figuring out what the inputs mean—a making-sense-of-things function, and 2) Figuring out what to do with that meaning—a what-do-I-do-with-the-meaning function.
At this point our factory has done three things: 1) Received inputs (a receiving function), 2) Made sense of the inputs (a research and development function) and 3) Figured out what to do with the meaning (another research and development function). So, our brain now has a blueprint or game plan on how to proceed.
In a factory, would a blueprint be sufficient? Obviously not! Research and development could produce all kinds of blueprints, but until those blue prints are turned into a product no real production has occurred.
In the brain the products being produced are ideas. An idea is a mental road map. It explains how the various roads (inputs) are connected. It also gives someone a useful guide of how to apply information.
Having a roadmap is meaningless unless one takes a journey. The ideas in the brain need to be applied—which means that the production and shipping functions are closely connected. In order for deep learning to occur, ideas must be translated into experiences. As I write this, I am translating my ideas into an experience: writing my ideas down for the world to see.
What we output also becomes an input. I see the words on my screen. So, our shipping and receiving functions are closely connected—they are both experientially oriented. We could view learning as a circle of: 1) experiences, 2) processing meaning to those experiences, 3) figuring out how to apply that meaning, and 4) creating new experiences, which loops back to number 1.
Is day dreaming an output? I mentioned the receiving and shipping parts of the learning factory is experiential. This often means receiving sensing from the body and sending commands to the body. However, consider what experiential means from the brain’s perspective. It means sensory-oriented. When daydreaming the brain is creating an experience for the brain. The brain can create things the brain hears, sees, touches, tastes and smells without receiving those raw materials from the body or outputting anything to the body. Does this mean when the brain is daydreaming that it is engaged in the learning process? Consider Albert Einstein. He loved imagination and it was a big part of his process for investigating physics. Many of the things he was dealing with could not be directly sensed and yet he figured them out. He did this using his imagination. He demonstrated an extremely creative form of learning. Olympic athletes will often visualize the event before they perform the event. Why would they do this unless this active imagining was somehow helping them perform better? And, couldn’t better performance be viewed as learning? Daydreaming is the learning factory churning away.
What does our system do with daydreamers? “Suzie! Suzie! SUZIE! Quit staring out the window and pay attention!” We squash daydreaming, but daydreaming is learning. Students daydream when their brains are longing for learning and they aren’t getting it from the classroom!
There are a few key things to take from this: 1) Learning is output-oriented. What I mean by that is learning does not occur until the process has come full circle. Simply inputting information is not enough. The brain must make sense of that information and produce a product. 2) Creativity is a key component of deep learning. We could view creativity as a function of research, development and production. In a factory, raw materials received must be transformed into something interesting or useful. Creativity is the process of the mind transforming raw materials (inputs) into something interesting or useful. The deeper the transformation—the deeper the learning!
One key problem with our education system is that the focus is primarily on the receiving end of learning. Students are often treated as empty receptacles to be filled. In many cases a great deal of raw materials are stacked on the receiving docks, but those raw materials don’t go through a radical transformation. In many cases those raw materials are later shipped out, but they are shipped out in the exact same form as they were received. The education system drops off a load of intellectual wood and then later comes back and receives the same load of intellectual wood. It’s a passive handoff of information. It looks more like a game of catch than an intellectual idea factory.
What schools often give students is a pattern to duplicate or a set of procedures to follow. When this happens there is a small degree of production between shipping and receiving. The intellectual planks received have been unpacked and organized into neat little piles. This did require some effort by the mental factory workers and a small degree of learning has occurred. But, this is far different than someone taking the planks and transforming them into something new. What I often see in college freshmen is an inability to think. They can collect and organize the mental planks of other people, but they cannot come up with their own planks. They are not able to analyze ideas and create. They are following some paint-by-numbers approach. Their research and development department has received little challenge and training. Their production department has been trained to answer questions as opposed to asking them.
Imagine for a moment working in a factory. Say your job only involved collecting wood and organizing it into neat piles. Would you find that job fulfilling? Obviously not! You would just be going through the motions, emotionally detached and filled with apathy. Because our education system put little emphasis on creativity, students are bored, passive and apathetic.
Let’s say for a moment in this factory you were paid $100/hour. Would you miss work? Would you neglect to do one single function of your job? Obviously you would do exactly what is asked of you. But, does this mean your heart would be involved? No! You would still be going through the motions, but you would be doing it in a highly compliant fashion, because you desire that fat paycheck. External systems of rewards may make people compliant, but that doesn’t make them excited about what they are doing. In fact, in such a system you would be less likely to ask questions or challenge the system. You would quietly and compliantly do what is told even if it meant nothing to you. Do you think having workers simply meandering around compliantly following orders translate into the factory producing a high quality product? Obviously the answer is no. A creative, energetic pursuit of an exceptional product comes from a person following their passions, asking questions and being fully engaged in the process. Later I will show how specific tools of the system (like grades, tests, textbooks and a whole host of other excrement) actually work against the brain producing an exceptional product. Our system is based on external rewards that condition people to compliance as opposed to tapping into their internal motivations that produce creative output.
For a moment, compare a five-year old to a high school graduate. The five-year old will be filled with questions. Give them a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons and they will create art! Their minds are active explorers. Then that poor kid enters kindergarten and the slow, deadly process of socialization begins. He is taught what to think instead of how to think. A high emphasis is placed on putting mental planks on the docks and later having him give back those planks. A low emphasis is placed on the research, development and production components of his learning factory. Even when those components receive some attention it’s done through bureaucratic procedure as opposed to artistic exploration. At five, the kid was bright, energetic, asking questions, creating art and passionately involved in the natural, wonderful process of learning. By the time that kid leaves high school he is an uninspired slacker who wants to know the answer to only one question from his teacher, “What do you want me to say and how do you want me to say it?” The fault is not the kid. He’s been conditioned to think that way!
While you wouldn’t know it from our education system, learning is fun. Consider a kid playing. Perhaps the child is making a fort, playing house or drawing with crayons. In all those cases the brain is receiving information from the environment, processing that information (the research and develop—making sense of things—as well as the production—translating that meaning into blueprints) and translating that into an output (where production meets shipping—experiential based: building a fort, having tea or drawing a dinosaur). A child at play is the learning factory in action. When children are engaged in this fashion they are squealing, laughing and fully engrossed in the process. It is a natural, pleasurable experience.
Children are naturally wired to test their environment. The whole learning process of play I just described is really just a child poking, prodding and exploring the world around them. Often children labeled as having a learning disability are doubly wired to test their environment. Consider a child labeled with ADHD. Such a child will: eat dirt to see what it tastes like, throw the cat in the pool to see if it likes water or take apart the lawn mower to see how it works. A child with ADHD does not have a learning disability. Our system has a teaching disability! Consider—these children are most disruptive to the education system when they are most engaged in the process of learning (testing their environment).
There are genuine learning disabilities. Sometimes the learning factory does not function as it should. Such students need appropriate help. What often happens is a student is smart and has a well functioning brain. They are just having problems fitting into the system. Is it naturally for young children to sit and quietly listen to lectures for six to eight hours a day? No! Adults have a hard time doing it and for the most part survive the ordeal because they’ve learned how to daydream. For a child or adult not fitting into a dysfunctional system is not a disability, but I’m afraid often one is labeled as disabled when there is nothing wrong with their learning factory. Such a label carries a stigma that can be damaging. A student can think something is wrong with them. Or, they can use that as an excuse for improper behavior later in life—“I can’t do such and such, because I have ADHD.”
Consider an adult taking up a hobby. Say they are learning to play trombone. They receive information from their instructor or trombone lesson book. Their brain needs to figure out what that information means, how to apply that meaning and then put that meaning into actual production. You can’t learn to play trombone merely by reading a book or listening to a teacher. Your learning must become experiential—you need to play the trombone. When an adult plays, we call it a hobby, but the same learning factory is churning as a child at play. All the various functions of the mental learning factory are in full gear. Hobbies bring us joy, make us laugh and enthrall us. Hobbies are learning!
Learning is a highly pleasurable experience. If one is bored in school, they aren’t bored with learning. They are bored because little learning is occurring.