Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rote memorization as a tactic for learning vs learning by comprehension

I know of no one that would/could reasonably pretend that the Nunavut education system is not without its problems. Well, there are those whose optimism borders on the insane - especially at headquarters and the political levels, but these people are rather disingenuous because it is in their interest to pretend.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not really blaming anyone. The system itself lacks stability and continuity so necessary for actual learning and education and inspiration to take hold. There is no teacher I know of who didn't care enough to try and do something, but the high attrition rates and job stress (and alienation by miscommunication and culture shock) stacks things against them. So, it is the system that fails the students by neglect from day one and overloading teachers who can't make heads or tail of the neglected student body where frustration ultimately overwhelms everyone; it's not the individual students or teachers that should ever be blamed for this sorry state of affairs.

I've had the opportunity to teach but it seemed in the end rather like a Sisyphean exercise to try and work on years of neglect and disjointedness of the system. At the college level where critical engagement and prior knowledge-logic application is key to advancement, we are truthfully working with students who've got rudimentary literacy skills (meaning they can read and write (some at a higher level than others) but real comprehension or application of reasoning skills is somewhat lacking). I don't think my students were unique and exceptional in this respect. The system robbed them of so much academic opportunity; this is to a large extent hidden, but most teachers will recognise that something is kind of off...

None of them would ever be labelled stupid. They were very intuitive about the Inuktitut grammatical structure which we were studying and I saw flashes of great insights but the odd thing was that they couldn't accept the notion of paraphrasing or grammaticizing the subject matter at the conceptual level.

I'm not criticising the students. I'm criticising the system that no one is really in control of; I think the education system is pure hell for most concerned, students and teachers alike. For highly intelligent students (which I would include almost all Inuit students with functioning faculties) being in the school system is like having ALS without the speech machine that saved Hawking's sanity and blessed the world with his profound scientific insights and contributions.

The dysfunctional education system creates pressure throughout the whole system called the Nunavut and federal governments and in the Nunavut society. In itself and as a whole, the system is extremely racist and prejudice bent on "proving" the inferiority of a group of people, for... what. Such waste is criminal, unconscionable, unacceptable. But it's a chicken and egg thing: we don't know what we don't know and don't know that we don't know. So it will take teachers with exceptional integrity and humanity to try and fix the system; teachers with a long-term vision; teachers who dare to dream of greater things than the time they spend here allows them.

The key is whether they leave the students to fend for themselves to rely upon rote memorization as a "learning" tactic (which cannot carry the workload) or teach them to rely upon liberal arts education principles of historical and developmental pedagogy and open-ended classroom discussions, step-by-step and organically to help try and transcend the practice passing on the hot potato for others to try and deal with.

For teachers this link may help what I'm trying to initiate an on-going discussion on: http://scholar.google.ca/scholar?q=rote+memorization+vs+critical+thinking&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

Jay

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