Triboluminescence

We had the first Learning Theory class on Friday.  There were some subtle aspects of the discussion that left me feeling academically uncomfortable.

In summary, teachers often have “objectives”, or goals, in mind for what they want their students to be able to do.  These goals can often be put in the form, “I want my students to be able to VERB NOUN.”  Some examples of verb-noun pairs include: write an essay; graph parabolas; name historical figures; compose an 8 bar melody, etc..  The noun is usually associated with knowledge, and the verb is usually associated with cognitive process.  The theory says that there are four kinds of knowledge (factual, procedural, conceptual, and metacognitive) and six kinds of processes (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating).  For instance, the objective “name historical figures” has the verb “name” associated with the “remembering” process and “historical figures” associated with “factual” knowledge.

My problem is this:  while I think it is useful for teachers to think carefully about what students should be able to do and what kinds of thinking to encourage, the theory is presented in such a way to suggest that these types of knowledge and processes are facts of the world.  Moreover, each process and knowledge type has about 20 buzzwords associated so that teachers can “correctly” categorize their activities accordingly.  This makes it seem as though the theory is some robust description of how learning works, when in reality, it seems to be no more than a tool to help teachers organize their thinking.  The way that the theory over-complicates itself defeats what I perceive to be its purpose–to organize and simplify the intricate phenomenon that is learning.

The whole approach and feeling of the first class sits uncomfortably with my training as a mathematician.  In Mathematics, definitions are always clearly and precisely presented.  I imagine myself as a mathematician developing a new branch of math with other people.  The discussion might start with a tentative definition, but then someone would talk about how that definition didn’t quite capture some desirable intuition or property.  This kind of discussion has a distinct feeling to it, with a sense of increasing clarity.

This was not the case in Friday’s class.  The first question was, “what is learning?”  I began by giving the definition that I learned in a Learning and Motivation class in Behavioral Psychology at UNL, thinking that it might get the ball rolling on a deep discussion that falls in parallel with the situation I described above.  I said, “Learning is change in behavior due to experience.”  I could have made it clearer that I was not stating some fact of the universe, but rather offering a functional definition that we could all discuss.  Instead, there were some clumsy, unclear ideas tossed around that were fine enough–just not what I was hoping for.  I think I took the question to be to define learning, so that we could have clearer discussions later when we talk about how to assess whether learning has occurred.  Instead, others seemed to take the question to be, “what sort of things do you think about when you hear the word ‘learning?'”  Someone said something that started with “learning is a tool to…”.  It seems rather particular, but I think that learning as a kind of phenomenon, and not a kind of tool.  Using the word “tool” seems to make the matter less clear, and thus stifles the discussion a bit.  I don’t mean at all to disparage any of the people who offered their thoughts associated with learning.  I appreciate their thoughts and have a lot to learn from each of them.  It is just that I was taking part in a different discussion than I thought would be appropriate in such a class.

The whole situation reminds me of my favorite passage in Richard Feynman’s autbiography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” in which Feynman is asked to assess the state of education in Brazil after his experience teaching Physics there.  The whole section is a few pages in length, and so I will try to pick out the essentials.  Feynman outrageously said in his speech to those teachers and government officials in Brazil, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”  He goes on to say that the situation is as if a scholar of the Greek language were to go to Greece.  She would be amazed at the fact that every child is speaking the language, where almost no one spoke it in her home country.  She would be troubled, though, when she asks a college student, “What are Socrates’ ideas about Truth and Beauty?”  The students would be silent.  When she asks, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” many students would immediately be able to recite the work from memory.  But, Feynman says, Socrates is talking to Plato about Truth and Beauty in the Third Symposium!  The students could recite word for word, but didn’t know what Socrates was saying.  This served as an analogy of all the young Brazilian kids who buy physics texts early on, with only very few actually becoming physicists.

To drive his point home, Feynman says he can open the Physics textbook to a random page and illustrate exactly what is going on in Brazilian education. He says: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when  crystals are crushed…. And there you have science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words.  You haven’t told anything about nature–what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light.  Did you see any students go home and try it? He can’t.  But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash.  Some other crystals do that too.  Nobody knows why.  The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.”‘ Then someone would go home and try it.  Then there’s an experience of nature.”

I like to keep this passage in mind when thinking about how to educate.  The story isn’t necessarily representative of my experiences at USC so far, but my experiences are remotely reminiscent.

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