Orchestrating Deeper Learning

When I have a History lesson, the students end up learning more than just discrete historical facts. Sometimes I wonder how I actually managed to connect Mathematical concepts (and I am NOT a Maths teacher) in a history lesson.  Actually, in the end, I realized I wasn’t just teaching a History lesson, but it became a lesson in questioning the difference between training and learning, and in effect what learning means to the students.

Having looked through the students’ test responses, I realized that many of them seem to have a problem answering WHY questions, and end up listing a sequence of events rather than identifying the causes, and explaining the link between the causes and the historical event.  Upon deeper reflection, I realized that part of the problem is that the History text is written as a sequence of events, interspersed sometimes with a sentence that identifies the cause of a particular historical event. Yet, it seems like students ‘read’ without really differentiating between sentences that are merely recounting and sentences that constructs a cause / effect relationship of some kind.

Many teachers would generalize that these students have a problem with reading, and stop there.Yet, when we say that about the students, are we in effect looking at the students through a ‘deficit’ model of learning; students lack the ability to read, so they can’t understand what they are reading in History texts ( or any texts), and that’s why they are always handicapped by this.

This deficit construct is hardly helpful.  Most of the time this leads to teachers limiting the students’ ability to learn deeper, because if they can’t even read a simple text and understand the text, then how can they ever go beyond this level of learning.  Often, this means that teachers will end up reading the text for the students and creating ‘notes’ to TELL them explicitly what are the different causes and students need ONLY memorise those for a test / exam. Yet, if teachers are doing the ‘READING’ for the students, how are students ever going to develop these reading skills for themselves?

How did Maths become part of this? Well, I realized that students were not AWARE of how to read for different purpose, and how there are ways to parse / chunk different parts of a sentence, depending on what you are paying attention to.  In History, recounting events requires a certain awareness of sequence, and usually this means organizing the sentences into some kind of order, usually chronological.  Thus, students needed to learn how to identify the parts of the sentences that signal EVENTS, and the parts that signal A CAUSE of an event.

I decided to start with a question about chronology, and my question to the students was based on the most basic concept of Mathematics, the number sequence or number lines. I asked them whether they can count, and of course they could, i.e 0, 1,2,3,4,5,6 etc. Then I threw this question at them: Does that mean you UNDERSTAND the concept of numbers? What is the underlying connection between this sequence of numbers? They were stumped by my question, yet counting numbers is one of the most basic Mathematical concept that students learn in lower primary. Then I asked them, can an animal count? Have you watched videos or read articles that show you an animal like a parrot, or a dog, or even a monkey being able to count 1, 2, ,3 ,4 ,5 etc? Does that mean that animals can process and understand the concept of Mathematics?

The point I was trying to get the students to grapple with is the difference between training and learning, rote memorization and understanding.  I suspect that most of the students could not differentiate between the two, and sometimes, I feel that such questions about what understanding means become lost in the educational rhetoric of testing, where student ‘learning’ is measured by worksheets / tests that only ask them to display what they have been TRAINED to imitate, often without any real test of understanding. Yes, that’s what it means when students can get the right answers, and yet have no idea why the answer is right.

The connection between the chronology and causation in History is really the same as the connection between counting numbers and understanding he principle underlying the relationship between the numbers. It is here that you begin to see that why some educators criticize the way students are taught in school, with different subjects slotted into the timetable as if learning can be compartmentalized. This is why I have always approached teaching and learning from the principles of UBD, especially Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions. As illustrated in my example, whether in Mathematics or History, the essential questions and enduring understandings of these two subjects can be similar, the BIG IDEAS and KEY CONCEPTS that transcend a particular subject or context, and thus of value to learning.

In historical inquiry and understanding, the students need to able to discern what is that ‘story’ or ‘narrative’, but more importantly, why this narrative has been constructed in this way, and how the writer of that narrative has chosen to include certain events in a certain order.  These questions form the basis of deeper critical thought and understanding. Students would need to be able to NOTICE that particular sequence and UNCOVER what it tells us about the cause-effect pattern that the writer is constructing, and at a higher level of understanding, to evaluate that particular EXPLANATION of an event for its bias, reliability, credibility and usefulness. If students still think learning is the same as ‘training’, i.e. All I have to do is imitate what the teacher is doing, and just ‘follow’ the steps, then they will be unable to really move to the stage of learning. Learning can never be standardized, the way our students make connections, notice different things, move along a certain pathway through that learning, they are all highly individual, often chaotic, and usually idiosyncratic.

Thinking, and that includes processes ( not only cognitive, but emotional and even social) like noticing, perception, experiencing dissonance, questioning, associations and connections, reflecting etc, is a complex phenomenon. Yet, how much of our teaching actually allow the students to experience this flow of engagement that is challenging yet extremely satisfying?

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