Learning and nonlinearity

Posted by on Jan 5, 2011 in General | One Comment

This morning I had a quick, offhand conversation about literacy instruction with Mark Springer, the distinguished middle school teacher who founded Soundings, one of the more impressive experiments in democratic, student-centered education that I’ve ever seen. He commented that he’d had students who made huge jumps in reading ability in his classroom, despite the fact that the curriculum is thematic and integrated, and there is no set reading class.

In education (and especially in education policy), we tend to think of learning as linear and incremental: students progress a little bit in each subject each year until they reach some proficiency threshold, one that presumably allows them to attend and be successful in college. If you graphed it, it would be a straight line.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of where these thresholds come from, this view of learning is problematic. Learning is actually nonlinear. You could learn more in one day about something than you had in the previous year, despite steady effort. We’ve all experienced that sense of epiphany, of something clicking in our minds that leads jumbled images to resolve into clarity. It changes the way we see things, often permanently.

In order to experience these jumps, we need puzzles, because it’s their resolution that tells us that we’ve figured it out. The current schooling regime of drills, routines, “accountable talk,” pacing calendars, and benchmark assessments leaves little if any room for such opportunities.

Understanding that learning is nonlinear should also influence how we think about remediation. If getting to proficiency is simply a steady accumulation of knowledge, then moving a 10th grader from a third grade reading level to being on-grade looks like an impossible task: if the line is straight, it simply gets too steep to climb it.┬áBut the line isn’t straight, and this offers us some measure of hope if we can rethink what the curriculum is for. We don’t know exactly when or how an individual student will “get it.” But as educators, what we can do is seed school with as many opportunities as possible for that “click” to happen.

1 Comment

  1. Aiden Downey
    January 6, 2011

    Well put. Mark Springer turned my whole idea of education upside down. When I went out and witnessed his classroom, saw and felt the kids and teachers engaged in meaningful work, it made me realize how badly we often do “school.” I am also reading “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” and think Shepard’s argument about expertise and learning is apt here. Basically the linearity of schooling is an imposed system, one built on efficiency rather than authentic learning. In terms of presenting material in a routinized fashion to large groups of children, it is highly efficient. In terms of them learning it, it is highly ineffecient. So we spend most of our time trying to make kids learn more in a system that does not even acknowledge how we learn. We try make a straight line out of what is always, and necessarily so, a circular and undulating process, a spiraling backwards and forwards, a too and fro-ing of sorts that defines and deepens human experience.

    This reminds me of Thoreau’s famous quip: “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

    And then back to reading. What does it mean to be in high school and read on a third grade level? We often see these students as almost handicapped, as if we cannot add more knowledge into them because of an earlier failure in the educational assembly line. In a linear model, they are for all practical purposes dead in the water, as they are behind where the system says they should be. Here lies the trick- the systems fails and somehow it is the kids who get labeled as behind. We sacrifice the kid to preserves the system. What if we drop the linear system? What would that mean in terms of how we see kids? If not on a scale then where? Where are they going? What do they want to do? What interests them? Now a new metric begins to emerge, one that cannot be divorced from the student, from their hopes, desires and dreams.

    Reading, like all literacies, is a tool. It allows us to do, learn and think things that we would not be able to do otherwise. Seeing it as a means rather than an ends radically shifts how we approach it in terms of students learning to read. The end, whether learning to garden in Georgia or understanding neoliberalism, makes the means important, and once it is important then one will learn it. As humans we are naturally good at this.

    So the struggle for us will be to seriously embrace a nonlinear approach to learning in a system that has become severely linear. This means realizing when we are on the “line,” or the assembly model to schooling, and when we are off of it. The point, I think, is to realize that there are thousands of routes for students to achieve the kind of competencies we hope for them- in fact as many routes as there are students- and that our job as teachers is helping them find and realize them. It is highly nonlinear and uncertain work, which is exactly the kind of learning we want to do and see being done at the Workshop.


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