Some years ago an expert paddler taught me how to roll a kayak. She taught me in a manner that I recall even now, years later, when practicing and re-learning the sequence of movements and state of mind that brings a kayak upright. She overcame her own expert blind spot, taught a difficult skill in bits and pieces, and did so with patience, empathy, and lots of encouragement. Somehow she had thought through each component of the act of bringing a kayak upright, and taught each component in isolation starting with the most difficult - outright terror. There is little more terrifying than submerged entrapment in an upside-down kayak. She knew we needed to start there, because nothing else would be learned until the mind was calm.
When I first read the 3rd chapter in How Learning Works, I immediately thought of the medical students that I have taught in recent years. In my experience, medical students are motivated largely by performance goals. They tend to be competitive but not terribly inquisitive. They tend heavily toward performance-approach goals to respond to the demands of the med school curriculum and program, yet don’t seem moved by a deep desire to understand medical genetics or the human condition. Their motivation seems to come from learning only what it takes to pass an exam; anything else is viewed as extraneous and is avoided. I’m not the first to notice this characteristic behavior in med students. I’ve heard professors complain that med students try to drill a hole in their heads to get the answers out, but show little interest in diving deeper into inquiry. I can only hope that once they become practicing physicians they find enough meaning and purpose in their work to ask deeper questions. I’m skeptical of this, however, and avoid doctors as much as possible.
We’ve just finished an advanced one-week short course in systems genetics, and as always, the course was illuminating and invigorating. My role was organizational in nature, with the teaching left to the experts. After reading about how student knowledge organization affects learning, I’m pondering ways that the course faculty might better meet the students where they are rather than teaching over their heads. I also wonder just how much of the advanced content sinks in for students whose understanding is limited, sparse or superficial.
Teaching while ignoring education research is common practice in higher education. In many venues there’s an unspoken assumption that a Ph.D. bestows teaching powers upon the degree holder, who need only address a group of students in order for learning to happen. Students are held 100% responsible for their own learning. If they don’t learn, they must not have studied hard enough, must not have had the requisite skills and knowledge to begin with, must not have applied themselves to the task. The higher education instructor has little incentive to learn how to teach better, by learning about what works, by being responsive to student needs, or by adapting teaching methods based on education research.