Schools and Culture: Learning as a Conversation

Summary: Learning should involve a conversation between teacher and student. Student questions ideally guide teachers to exactly where the student has lost track in the material under consideration.

When I talk with my high school students about their struggles in math, and in other subjects as well, they often admit they don’t understand what the teacher is trying to teach. Frequently these difficulties stem from episodic inattention, absence from school, and reluctance to do the homework or to study – the familiar litany encountered daily by teachers. Often enough the student is clever enough not to blame the teacher specifically, but ascribes the failure to an alleged poor match between teacher style and the individual student’s learning style. It’s good to speak the lingo. Learning style is sometimes an issue, but more frequently serves as an excuse covering a multiplicity of other malfunctions on the student’s and sometimes the teacher’s part.

In recent years I’ve found myself talking increasingly with my students about learning as an ongoing conversation with the teacher. Teacher presents material, but student may not understand teacher. This impasse usually means the student has gotten stuck somewhere along the way while the teacher continues to move through the material, but without recognition that an earlier point crucial to the later ones has been poorly comprehended.

Here is where I try to teach students to take responsibility for their learning. “Ask questions. Part of your job is to help the teacher understand where you got lost, and give the teacher clues as to where he or she should circle back and re-teach. The conversation should get more and more specific until the teacher is able to identify with accuracy where you are stuck. Asking questions is, in fact, intelligent behavior.” (The contemporary student more commonly thinks a question asked is an exposure of stupidity.)

Typically, the kind of conversation I advocate happens rarely, and then only between a motivated student staying after school and the teacher.

Learning we know is an active process, in which one who learns incorporates new material into the framework of their current understanding, or adjusts that framework to adapt to the new information. Hence, optimal learning takes place where the student is an active participant in the conversation. Yeah, yeah, basic Piaget.

As I’ve attempted to detail elsewhere, the absence on the part of too many students from these kinds of conversations is complex, couched in cultural dysfunctions. Students often act as though learning were a passive process, in which the teacher somehow magically opens their heads and pours in an elixir.

As a worker in high schools, I cannot but also speculate on the years my students have spent in the grades below. Though the same maladaptive cultural processes I have lamented in high school were operative in elementary and middle school, what does it say about my students’ earlier school experiences, as well as their current ones, that so many seem so passive in the face of what we try to teach them, and seem so little inclined to ask enough questions? Have they been too long asked to regurgitate, and too little expected to think?

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