Some thoughts on learning

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 26, 2011

Although the debate may seem like a fresh one to anyone just joining in, the controversy over the best teaching methods has been a perpetual and never-ending war. Go back a hundred years and you will find in the educational literature the same basic arguments that you find today.

When it comes to the way kids learn there are two stereotypical groups. In the one group we have the traditionalists who think kids should be forced to sit up straight while they pay attention to every boring word a teacher has to drone on about regardless of how the student feels about the topic. This group tends to be more rigid, more prone to dittos and repetitive structure.

The other group, which we can call the progressive group, calls for the liberation of the student from such traditional tyranny. The progressive feels that the student will learn easily if the right "personalized” classroom approach is found. This group tends to be more laid back and less structured.

While many people might fall in one category or the other, I would move to say that both camps are essentially wrong in the way they view education.

The failure of the traditionalist is that while his constant drills and dry lectures may implant a random fact here and there into the brain of students, his classroom is horribly deficient in teaching students to search for knowledge. The traditionalist classroom does not go beyond facts. It ignores method. It emphasized rote learning above exploration.

The failure of the progressive classroom is that it usually creates an unrealistic model of the real world. If schools are a preparation for the adult world, the progressive classroom will leave almost any student at a loss when he leaves school. The real world has structure.

In regards to learning methods, the traditionalist is likely to be very strong on rote learning. Of course everyone has heard the evils of rote learning, which is why, say the progressives, everyone needs to find their own particular style of learning. The problem is this: every healthy human being learns in multiple ways. To learn to read, we watch and listen. To learn to play basketball, we get in and just go. To remember a phone number, we say it over and over in our minds in a rote fashion until it’s stuck. Yes, learning by only rote is bad, but so is learning by only one other method, which the progressive classroom does whenever it says, "Find your own style of learning.”

Learning is very personal, but there are a lot of principles behind it that are content based. We don’t learn everything we need to know in the same fashion, so we all need to find as many ways to learn as we possibly can. The traditional and progressive schools have essentially been equally restrictive, where one forced everyone to conform to a single way of learning, while the other advised choosing your one single preferred way.

Learning Approaches

Essays dealing with the often heated debates on learning styles.

  1. Some thoughts on learning
  2. Smart Kids in Distress

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