Saturday, December 02, 2006

One third

I'm about a third of the way done with this chapter. I finished writing the first section today and now I begin (re)reading for the second. I was able to use about a page of the material I'd written before, including the introduction, which I thought worked pretty well. It might need to be tweaked once I'm finished with the whole thing, but it's a useful guiding force for now. It's really weird to write about how people learn to write while you're writing. I find myself measuring methods against my own process. I was discussing some of my ideas with Mr. Geeky, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive science, and he kept saying, "but you don't know what your brain is doing; that's the point." But I think I do and for some reason, I think that's important. I think I understand how I process information and when I think it's not processing well, I find ways to get myself back on track. In essence, that's sort of what I was thinking we do with students sometimes. We figure if we know where they've gotten off track, what's going on in their heads, then we can help them. But we can't know because they can't know exactly what's going on and so we try other things as well. It's not an efficient system. Whether it's writing or math or science or history, my impression is that there's no definitive method out there for teaching these subjects. It's all an educated guess. There may be evidence that one method is better than another, but there's still no method that stands out as perfect. Partly that's due perhaps to our lack of understanding about how people at various levels actually learn and partly that's due to differences among individuals. Also, I think at the college level, there are all kinds of emotional and motivational issues that have nothing to do with learning that sometimes get in the way. It seems as if, sometimes, we're asked to be amateur psychologists running little experiments on our subjects. I know most of us, myself included, don't think of teaching that way, but reflecting on my teaching methods and figuring out how to improve things often feels that way. Why, we often ask, when we use the same method from class to class, does one go well and one go poorly? Sometimes it has nothing to do with what we do and more to do with the makeup of the class--the personalities, the socioeconomic backgrounds, the motivations and desires--things out of our control. It is, as I often say, a complex and emerging system. How to manage that system and turn out students who have actually learned something is the million dollar question? I think I'm comfortable answering that question, but only tentatively because things change. Knowledge changes, the students change, the classes change and we have to adjust. Yes, it makes teaching harder. It makes thinking about teaching harder. But it seems worth it somehow.