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Everyone's talking at me
Q: What's the answer?
People are natural meaning-seekers. From Aristotle to Alfie, our most persistent question remains, "What's it all about?" That's just the way our brains are wired. "Why me?" we cry, when misfortune strikes. What seems also true, based on all the research contained in this course, is that for meaning to become meaningful in the nuanced, personal way that enables us to use it creatively, we have to construct it for ourselves. And this takes work. Of course, humans also tend to be a bit lazy, and it's certainly easier to get answers to life's persistent questions from someone else than to grapple with them ourselves. As a result, plenty of people are always eager to think for us—people looking for ditto-heads to follow them—and many people are always happy to follow.
So, while people are meaning-seekers, they are not necessarily meaning-makers (independent thinkers)—in the rich, dynamic sense suggested in this course. Although the professed and desired outcome of education is to develop meaning-makers, too many of our schools tend to fall short of this goal. Students are told what novels and poems mean, the causes of wars, the "right" way to solve math problems, and what to believe about global warming or other cultures. Facts get all mixed up with adult opinions. The result is that rote memorization replaces the hard work of building new neural networks rich with personal meaning.
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Despite all the research and all the insights we have gained into the complex mysteries of the brain and how it learns, this picture continues to capture the essence of education in too many classrooms. Teaching is telling or talking at; learning is listening. Kids not learning? Talk louder. Meanwhile, the students tune into more personally meaningful things—creating their look, downloading their music, or texting their friends.
What is the role of schools in shaping what we become? Should schools aspire to turn out meaning-makers? If the system is built on the assumption that teaching means passing on to students the meanings that teachers have discovered, and if students become so accustomed to having teachers tell them what things mean and then being tested on how well they can parrot those meanings, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect many of them to become meaning-makers. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that so many students seem so passive.
Research suggests that active engagement is the result of very different conditions. Emotional relevance and a solid platform of self will motivate learners and will develop their ability to empathize with others and to become creative problem-solvers. When learners can pursue their interests, when they can study what matters to them, and when they can engage deeply with other learners and teachers, they are more likely to do the hard work of meaningful learning. (top)
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So, what are schools to do? How can more teachers translate scientific theory into effective classroom practices? The premise of this course is that learners and circumstances differ, so finding a universally applicable approach is unlikely. In addition, one size, one approach, limits the scope of learning in its Procrustes-like aspirations for cookie-cutter standardization; and providing answers to students short-circuits the process of learning. Of course, as it is for students, so it is for learners who also happen to be teachers: One of the goals of this course is to avoid giving answers, lest they be construed as definitive and universally applicable. Instead, our goal is to provide provocative information—theories, concepts, and ideas. By building new neural networks to internalize and understand this information, you will be able to identify and analyze the issues at your school and in your classroom. That way, you can discover your own answers, ones that address your unique circumstances, culture and population.
One of the most tenacious and admirable characteristics of teachers is their desire for autonomy. It is this independent spirit that this course addresses—even if that spirit is hobbled by intolerable conditions. Our intention is to reach independent, creative educators who are eager to engage in new ideas about learning and to use these ideas to invent solutions to problems they and their students encounter. Changing mindsets is not an easy process. Most of us tend to teach as we were taught; it's what we know. So seeing some examples of different approaches invented by teachers who have applied this research to their classroom can be useful. For the sake of illustration only, let's start by looking at just three of the many principles that emerge from the research and see how two teachers have transferred each to particular schools—both to the classroom and to the larger school as a whole.