There are moments when my conscience strikes a killer blow. It happened to me when my son was in his second year at university and clearly facing a few challenges. I knew he was a very intelligent young man (as are all our sons, right?) but his grades did not seem to reflect his ability.
I asked a question that I really should have asked years before. I’m an educator. I’m a parent. Why hadn’t I woven the two together into a seamless whole? Human? Fallible? Guilty to both.
So, what was the question?
“How do you study? How do you read the text book?”
His answer floored me.
“I just read it!” he said, with a look of incredulity that I should ask such an obvious question.
After a moment’s thought I asked him “Do you use a pen or a highlighter? What sort of notes do you take? How do you transfer the material in the book into your working memory?”
He had no clear idea what I was talking about.
Why hadn’t I realized years ago that in 14 years of formal schooling no one had ever actually taught him HOW TO LEARN?
He had been taught mathematics, geography, history, poetry, wood and metal working, literacy … but he had never been systematically, developmentally and consistently taught HOW TO LEARN.
If he was at school today he would be systematically taught how to pass tests. That’s not the same as being taught how to learn. That’s just about how to perform in a task and a context that has virtually nothing to do with life anywhere other than in the classroom. Learning to pass tests is a closed system confined to the school and of no value to the creative thinker and independent, life long learner in the world outside.
What should he have been taught?
At least he should have been taught how to interrogate a text, how to recast the information into graphic form, how to isolate the main points and the supporting points, how to create a mind map that integrates the new information with what he already knew, how to identify new vocabulary and build up a word bank of all the words that belong to that family and understand the threads of meaning that make them family (electricity, electric, electrician, electron, electronic, electromagnetic and so on) and how to formulate questions that demonstrated what he did understand and revealed what he didn’t.
At least he should have been taught that to “just read it” guarantees that the information will be here today and gone tomorrow.
But most importantly he should have been taught how to be a metacognitive, self aware learner. A learner who understands how he learns best, who can monitor his own learning and understanding, who can adjust his learning strategies when he finds what he is doing isn’t working as well as it could, that learner is well on the way to becoming a life long, independent learner.
In our book “Developing Mindful Students, Skillful Thinkers, Thoughtful Schools” we explore and demystify the importance of metacognition and provide a wealth of practical suggestions for the classroom.
And that makes my conscience trouble me even more.
Why didn’t I know all this when my kids were young?
Why didn’t I monitor what was happening at school more closely?
How did 14 years go by without me realizing that my son didn’t know how to learn effectively because no one had ever taught him?
Maybe that is why I am so passionate about it now.