"…broadening the base…"

"What we have in common is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree." David Weinberger

Adlt 606: #3 “Liberating the why.”

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Those who follow my blog know that a good scene in a movie is one that resonates with me.  The thread of an interesting line, the reaction of a character to a situation that may seem inconsequential to one viewer can make a significant impact on me.  Enter Peggy Sue.  While the time frame for this film is at least twenty years before I encountered high school, the setting could have been taken directly from a day in my life.  Hollywood presented a character who spoke what I had thought for so many years about the study of mathematics.  Where in the world would I use it and what made it essential for me to study it?  My teachers provided no viable reason for learning the subject and certainly didn’t enlighten my ignorance. Light years before the STEM movement, educators rarely discussed the relationship between mathematics and the rest of the world. Why should I give countless hours of my time to learn formulas and theorems that appeared to be little more than rote memorization and endless hours of dittos and worksheets?  I hated the subject, saw little relevance to my life and didn’t believe that I possessed a mind that could comprehend the subject.  I became a devout “Math Atheist.”

Dr. Herta Freitag, known for her work on Fibonacci numbers, joined the faculty of Hollins University (then College) in 1948.   The first woman to serve as the section president of the Mathematical Association of America would certainly be an interesting guest speaker at the local business woman’s dinner meeting.  I knew that my supervisor would relish the idea of an opportunity to hear her speak, let alone sit and dine at her table.  What my supervisor did not envision was what would follow my introduction. I extended my hand, introduced myself and stated that I was a “reformed Math Atheist.”  Dr. Freitag’s laughter did little to assuage the embarrassment of my guest.  Her warm smile and request to repurpose my expression was a sure indication that a mathematician could have a sense of humor.

Somewhere between the end of high school and this dinner my ideas surrounding the subject of mathematics rotated a full 180 degrees.  Enter fifth grade. I loved the age group, yet, bemoaned the idea of being responsible for a subject that was of little use to me.  My colleague claimed language arts and social studies which left mathematics to me.  How would  a “Math Atheist” present learning tasks  to a group of eager and enthusiastic students? The world of manipulatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, small group instruction and most importantly, the world of “why” turned my life around.   The late 1980′s and early 1990′s were a time of great fun for me as a teacher. A transformation occurred as I began to question the purpose behind what I taught and how it was presented to me as both a learner and a teacher of learners.

As anyone who works with elementary children knows, the teacher does not lecture, but rather designs a situation that ensures that learning is meaningful for the learner.  An experience full of purpose does not occur without dialogue, as Jane Vella asserts.  “The dialogue in dialogue education is not between the teacher and the learner but rather among learners, of whom the teacher is one.”  (p. 51)  I began to question the reason behind the imprisonment of the “why?” While my education did not offer the necessary background and context for understanding the “why’s” of mathematics, the teacher training was a wealth of rich contextual experiences.

The ideology behind questioning authority, while central to my teachers and babysitters of the 1960′s, seemed to take a back seat to the adage, “Children should be seen but not heard.” To question the relevance of a subject, the reasoning behind a lesson or assignment was considered disrespectful.  The social activism of the last century brought transformation to many systems within society. In what way did it impact my role as a public educator, I wondered?  When posed with the question “why” my students often struggled to both ask and answer questions that allow them to engage in self-discovery.  Adult learners often question each other  about the reason a training must occur, particularly when a worker’s load of responsibilities is already overwhelming.   Rarely, if ever, have I heard an adult voice concern within earshot of the presenter.  Comments are routinely voiced during break time, while visiting the restroom and in passing materials and resources to one another.  While it would only seem natural that learners would begin to question the purpose of a learning event, “why” continues to be imprisoned. Adults learners need rich contextual experiences that show respect for their time and effort.

In Design and Delivery of Adult Learning programs, I am charged with discovering the needs of my learners and the importance of assessing those needs prior to any learning event that I create.  The work invested in the program, Community Garden Day, shows evidence of the work that my learners will do in a small group setting. This evidence comes with hours of preparation, research and much reflection.  Do these events adhere to the “safety in design” ideology proposed by Vella?  If the group loses energy, will they have a the tools necessary to discuss the questions posed by the event? For years I have told my students that good readers, like good movie goers leave the story asking more questions  than they had entering it.  While I have never seen my needs projected or discussed at the beginning of any meeting or training, I am convinced that to do so at the Community Garden Day programs will show careful consideration and planning for a positive learning opportunity. Adult learner must see themselves as a focal point of the learning event.

The mantra of  those who design programs for adult learners should be “Tough verbs and tangible products.” It would certainly spark some interesting conversation, if not a few puzzled expressions. I love how Vella describes the importance of the tough question.  All research begins with a question, yet we often fail to consider how every learning event should surround one as well.  She ascertains that it’s a cogent indicator of learning. (p. 57)  (Thesaurus.com sites 34 synonyms for cogent, all of which are pretty tough in their own right!  Go Vella).

A cogent indicator of learning must be the liberation of why!

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6 thoughts on “Adlt 606: #3 “Liberating the why.”

  1. Hi Laurie, great post ! I’m going to show this post to a colleague who teaches maths at our uni, her particular interest is the students who find themselves having to rather than wanting to do it ;)

    • Thanks for the feedback, Emily, and for passing it to a friend. I am always interested in how other teachers engage their students. As you know, teachers have no shame-they steal ideas left and right. Looking forward to a hangout when you all are finished with the semester. I know that Desi has been very overwhelmed this semester and Elizabeth is having way too much fun traveling.

      • o that’d be lovely :) I’m just finishing my marking for the year this week, then it’s just very flexible research time for me – I’ve even got all my conferences done for the year (hence I’ve taken to reading blogs and tweets again, as you see!) – look forward to catching up soon

  2. Great post! It’s one of the reasons I hated school – not knowing the what, why or how of things! It’s one reason that I don’t particularly object to the term ‘study skills’ either – we don’t always know this what, why and how – but we can learn – and then we emancipatory practice can emerge! Yay! S

    • Hi, Sandra
      I wonder how often the imprisonment of the “why” is the result of a power struggle between the student and the teacher. While we don’t remember that “why” stage as a toddler, I do recall listening to a repeated why from my own child as well as those that I cared for when I was a mother’s helper. It’s pretty powerful and can really get under an adult’s skin. Perhaps toddlers do it for the reaction and attention that they received. The message, however, seems to hit home. Don’t ask. Even as an adult, I don’t feel comfortable asking someone in authority why. I am always concerned about the reprocutions. So, off I go trying to figure it out all on my own.

  3. Laurie, first and foremost I’ve always loved this movie! And isn’t it amazing how we see something as entertainment in the beginning at times, and yet once our schemas have been enhanced we begin to see the same things with different lenses and wonder as to hidden meanings? I so enjoyed the connection here to the movie, for the “why” is often something that we were never taught to ask it seems-until I entered the world of adult education. But perhaps that is why childhood education is beginning to consider the opportunity to ask this question, even of those that are so young and “inexperienced”. For do children not also bring their own perspectives, histories, opinions to the classroom and what we teach? Even if they are perhaps not as colored and widened as our own. If someone had told me why more often, or if I was comfortable enough to question how what was being taught may specifically relate to me, I cannot help but wonder if my own learning throughout life would have been enhanced. Although I will never condone any part of Enron or what they stood for, I can not help but reflect on their slogan and wonder if it alone drew enough interest to contribute to their power because it was not something we normally were told….”Ask why”….am I going a little too broad here in my theory? :)

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