Divided Attention

Yesterday I had a talk with a 12 year old.

He told me he’d been learning Arabic for 5 years, 5 days a week but couldn’t put together even one sentence.

I was curious why. Was it so difficult?

Was the teacher so bad?

No, he said.

It was rather that the group consisted of 20 pupils and every year they did exactly the same, again.

Then he came up with a bright calculation. He said that due to the group-setting the intensity of these lesson was divided by 20. Therefore, he was not really taking 150 lessons per month but just 7.5!

He then added quickly that it’s not just him but all of his classmates feel the same and that in order to really make a progress, one would need to take a private teacher.

Trays Of Eggs & Football Teams

Every school teaches students in groups, so-called classes.

These classes are mostly consisting of students from the same birth year, regardless of their individual characteristics.

There can be enormous gaps between individual students’ learning and general growth process: Gaps, which the teacher is supposed to bridge while neither boring the bright ones nor leaving anyone behind.

Reducing class-size down to smaller numbers to many people sounds like a solution.

An expensive solution, obviously, for it would mean having to employ more teachers.

Nevertheless, changing the quantity alone won’t have a direct effect on the class-quality.

The important part is putting students together in such a way that the talents and shortcomings on an individual level balance each other out in total.

Putting together a good class this way will take lots of time and analysis, it’s like selecting members for a football-team, adding, exchanging and improving the set-up over time.

But if done right, it can minimize the gaps between learning styles and knowledge levels and make for an overall more productive learning experience. I’ve worked in a private tutoring institution which allowed me (in a limited range) to do this and I was always surprised how the whole group could change by adding/subtracting one person. It’s not just the “bad apple” ruining the bunch. Also, the good one can help the whole excel!

But even if teachers don’t have a direct influence on the way their classes are made up, there’s another problem with learning in groups as we know it from schools all over the world:

Assembly Line Curricula: Step By Step And One-Track Minds

Have you ever had a teacher that goes by the book?

Where each lesson is another page, another unit, another section, number after number after number…?

I certainly had.

Educators are supposed to have a system. They are supposed to create lesson plans where each activity builds upon all the other ones, so that over time students will learn more and more instead of simply running in circles.

Fair enough…parents and politicians want to see guarantees and results.

But there are two misunderstandings, here:

  • learning is not always a linear process
  • a good lesson-plan doesn’t make for a good lesson

1. There are general stages in learning. Let’s take learning a language for example. You start with letters, go on to words, then sentences and then whole texts. Each one is built on and consists of the former.

The general idea is to take these stages and connect them. In geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a line. In theory it looks so nice, doesn’t it?

2. And while learners do indeed eventually go through these stages of A,B,C the actual growth, as I’ve experienced it while teaching and learning anything myself from languages to programming looks more like this:

All these squiggly lines are detours, questions, repetitions, jumping ahead, etc. And to be quite honest, not even this graph is really accurate, because many time a learner grasps parts of B before having grasped A completely and then while at the C stage needs to go back to A to make up for the gaps. I’m sparing you a visual representation of it: Lots of loops.

Add to this  the fact from above that not all students in a class are a) at the same level and b) may have different learning styles it will be very difficult to move the whole class through stage after stage without losing them in one of these horrendous loops and twists.

If, on the other hand, we have one-on-one sessions or carefully selected small groups and look at teaching in a non-linear way, how can we make sure to get people from A to B to C?

The honest answer: There is no guarantee in learning.

Some people learn quickly. Others slowly.

No rationalization or efficiency model will iron out human irregularities.

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