Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thinking without an endpoint

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR the other day, and the discussion topic was how people think, especially in this age filled with distractions.

Here is the link to that show and some of the highlights.

The guest on the show had some really interesting points about technology, how we use it, and how a culture's approach to learning tends to evolve over time.  As a complete philosophy nerd, I was enthralled by this conversation.

It got me thinking about the educational theory I spent so much time studying this fall.  Most school systems use the didactic model; information is conveyed from teacher to student incrementally, with the teacher being active and the student a passive receiver.  Knowledge is assumed to be in concise "bits" that are added into the brain, and learning is thought of as a simple adding process.

Constructivism, on the other hand, begins with the idea that knowledge exists only when it is created inside the mind.  Learning is the process of actively making meanings and ideas, which is constantly restructuring the brain. 

The constructivist model can be daunting for a teacher, because you never know what meanings and ideas your "student" is going to create, and therefore you can't predict what the endpoint or "result" of the learning will be.  I personally LOVE this way of learning; it is pretty much how my brain has worked my entire life.  However, as a teacher I find myself falling back into the didactic format because I have points I want my students to "get", and the easiest way to do that is to simply tell them.

The guest on the Diane Rehm show that day was talking about how the currently available technologies have made it possible to simply retrieve information from another source, rather than needing to keep quite so much in our brains.  One possible consequence of this focus on retrieval is an avoidance of critical thinking, since "getting the answer" is so much faster and easier than problem-solving it out with our minds. 

Some people have expressed a concern that young students today are not learning how to think critically because there is usually an "answer" that they can find.  This tendency embodies the didactic theory of knowledge, that it exists as "bits" of absolute information that simply must be retrieved when necessary. 

Yet we know that the world and the issues plaguing it are more complicated than such a black-and-white model.  We can understand the future may be best figured out by people who can practice divergent thinking and create new meanings and ideas from primary input.  Essentially, constructivist thinking (and learning) is a way to solve complex problems that do not have a concrete or straightforward "answer" but several possible solutions.

Those constructivist, unpredictable and sometimes even unintended outcomes can feel scary at first, since you never know where you are going to end up (as the teacher or the student!).  But the thinking itself exercises our brains in a way that is quite invigorating.  Do you ever catch yourself doing that?

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