Teaching is like eating an olive

Teaching is like eating an olive: bitter-sweet. Bitter because olives are disgusting (or some would say an acquired taste) and like teaching, some aspects of teaching are unpleasant (marking exams). Sweet because eating olives has health benefits that I don't necessarily see nor feel; the same way that I won't necessarily see the results of some of the labour I put in with my students. I'm sure my students could think of better analogies about the relationship between teaching and learning because they have many opinions about what happens in the classroom.

I've been helping a student who has asked for help because she struggles with comprehension exercises. Every week she reads a comprehension exercise and answers questions which she gives to me to mark. Once I've marked her work we sit together and talk through her answers. While marking her most recent submission I wondered what she thinks about when approaching these exercises. I also got the feeling that she may have rushed the exercise because time constraints are a real factor when trying to be "good at" something in a school context (think about exams and the 40 minute lessons we have to cover work).  I have been struck by how she has internalised that she is not "good at" comprehensions: this means that she does not get 80% (because in school being good at something means adding a percentage to it to see how much you understand). Every week I challenge her to change this perception of not being "good at" comprehensions. We're still working on it.

Part of the problem is the idea of thinking. What does my student think when she approaches her homework or the weekly comprehensions she dutifully submits? I imagine she thinks about many things: consciously and unconsciously. Is she aware of the difficulty of her task or is she consumed by her imagined incompetence when she has to do a comprehension as an assessment? Her most recent submission was very frustrating to mark. I found myself wondering: is she thinking? Most of the questions she answered required inference and paraphrasing which she garbled through. The big question however is: by handing in comprehensions each week, will she get "good at" answering comprehensions in a test or exam?

Teaching and learning (in certain disciplines) is premised on the idea of "practice makes perfect": the more comprehensions my student does she will get better marks. Just like eating the olive; the more I eat them the more I'll get used to the taste. But what does this mean for thinking? Will my student become a better thinker with every comprehension question she answers? The answer is probably on a scale between no and maybe. There's no certainty that doing something more often means you 'll become better at it; especially if you are applying the same strategies every time.

This is not a genius conclusion and one that is based on observing one student. I guess my main concern is about the connection between thinking and the development and change in the thinking after exposure to certain work. I'm also worried that when my student writes her exam in a few weeks time and she doesn't do well; how will she understand her practice of comprehension not yielding the perfect result? Because practice makes perfect right? Furthermore, is there anything I can do as her teacher to help her think about her thinking?

I'm sure this isn't the only student who struggles with this aspect of learning and thinking. I'm also sure that her challenge with comprehension is a symptom of how difficult learning and metacognition is in a climate where learning is about "practice makes perfect". If anyone has any readings or suggestions that could enlighten me on this issue your ideas would be greatly appreciated.


Comments

  1. Thanks for the post. Important issues. How do we teach people ways of thinking and not just how to jump through academic hoops?
    How can we practise creativity?

    You've probably done this already but what's also nice is only giving them the text and getting the learners to come up with the comprehension questions themselves. As an extra you could give them and briefly explain Bloom's taxonomy and get them to make up at least 2 questions for each level. if they're doing it in groups then thet swop question papers and write answers for another group's question, then they mark etc.
    Finally they could all discuss the different questions and explain why they fulfil their level on the taxonomy or not.

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    Replies
    1. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/edu/78/4/256/

      research that shows that Question Generation outperforms other comprenhesion teaching strategies.

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  2. I should rephrase my first remark as:

    How do we help our students (and ourselves) practise - and in some cases completely rediscover - the inherent creativity and curiousity that we are all born with? In other words, how do we reverse the effects of the vast majority of schooling which seeks so often to standardize, silence, prescribe, and punish?
    Finally, how do we do this when we too have been so damaged by this anti-thinking?

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  4. So, in conclusion, it's not that practice itself is the problem, rather, it's what we are practising and why we are practising it which are the problems.

    P.s. this would be a nice time for somebody to clarify the practise vs. practice distinction :)

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