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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning and Retention

A public school teacher friend of mine was recently telling me that there is talk of eliminating summer vacation, going to year round school with more frequent, shorter breaks. The idea is that children forget what they have learned over the summer, and teachers have to spend a lot of time in review. Eliminating summer break may or may not be a fine idea, but I question whether it will solve the problem with retention. My guess is that the break, which is less than 3 months, is not actually the cause of this forgetting.

Thinking back to things I learned in school, I still remember much, and I am 42 years old. For example, I still know my times tables. In the 5th grade I learned the sign language alphabet, and I still know it. In my 20s I worked at a department store and had a hearing impaired customer. I was able to spell out words well enough to communicate with her! I know the ABCs song from kindergarten. In high school I memorized a passage from Shakespeare that I can still recite. And I can tell you that on Moe's Scale of Hardness, diamonds are the hardest mineral, and talc is the softest. Am I a genius? Why, of course! But seriously, why did I retain this information and much more without any review from a teacher and despite years (and years and years) passing since I learned these things?

My theory is that I really, actually learned this information, I was interested in it at the time that I learned it, and in some cases I have had occasion to use what I learned in a practical way. For example, I like to bake. In 8th grade home economics, I learned that 3 teaspoons equals a table spoon. When one measures brown sugar, one packs it firmly. However, when measuring flour, one does not pack it, but rather over fills the measuring cup and levels it off with the straight edge of a butter knife. I use all of this information on a regular basis.

Teachers today must focus on preparing students for proficiency tests, and students have the added stress of passing the test in order to move on to the next grade. Information is packed into students' brains, and the methods used must result in the regurgitation of this knowledge for the test, so there are considerable limits on a teacher's creativity and responsiveness to individual learning styles. What results is memorization, which is not the same thing as learning, and what has been crammed into the brain is quickly forgotten.

My experience as a Montessori classroom teacher gives me valuable insights. I worked primarily with preschool and kindergarten aged children, 3 to 6 years old. The key to Montessori education is what is called "the prepared environment." Children are allowed to freely choose activities, called "work" in Montessori lingo, as long as they have been presented the correct way of using the materials by a teacher. Children through the 6th grade do not sit at desks. They can work at tables, or sit on the floor with a work space delineated by a rug, or they can sit on a couch to read. They are free to move their bodies, and movement has been linked to better learning. Through the 6th grade, children stay in the same classroom for 3 years. This provides consistency, and older children are role models for younger ones. There is team teaching, with at least 2 teachers to a classroom. Children do have some whole group lessons, but most presentations are made to individuals and small groups. Kids follow their interests, and they have many choices of concrete materials with which to work.

One of my most poignant moments as a student teacher occurred when I held a square of five rows of five beads and realized that this was "5 squared."  Five squared is an actual square?! Why didn't the teacher mention this in algebra class? I felt cheated and mourned the insufficiency of my own math education. I still well up with tears when I think of that five squared moment. In Montessori, the concrete comes before the abstract. Children learn math by touching it, seeing it, and manipulating the materials. By the age of six, many Montessori students know their place values, can identify geometric solid shapes, and can do multiplication and division in this way. They can learn the concrete basis for algebra in kindergarten!

My memory is a bit hazy, but from what I understood during my training, Maria Montessori did not think high school students should even be spending time sitting and learning in a school building. She would have them riding horses and caring for them, building houses, cooking meals, apprenticing to a blacksmith, learning to make shoes, and other real world experiences where they learned their subjects by doing them. And speaking of subjects, I had another revelation in college. During one of my quarters at Ohio State, I had classes in English, history and mythology. These 3 classes happened to have a lot of overlapping information, and I loved learning that quarter! The mythology related to the history, the history to the literature, the literature to the mythology. Isn't that how things should be learned, with their connections to each other, not as separate "subjects" in little boxes? Baking cookies involves reading, math, the senses of sight, touch, taste, and smell, using tools, and creativity. Creating a dance choreography involves musical interpretation, math, rhythm, physical movement, and visual artistry.

Another note about college. My husband teaches composition at IPFW and has taught English at many colleges in different cities and states. He laments that his students do not know how to think for themselves! They stare at him blankly when asked to choose a topic to write about. They want to be spoon fed. When I took college history, I noted the extreme difference between the focus of history in high school. High school history is about MEMORIZING facts--who, what, when, and where. Who remembers the year of the Battle of Bull Run, where and when it was fought, and who the generals were? I don't. In college, history focused on the question of WHY. What were the social attitudes? The underlying political agendas? How do the circumstances that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire compare to what is happening in the United States in modern times? In a liberal arts education, students must give their opinions and support those opinions with the text. They must think! In American public schools, children are not prepared for college. By and large, they are not taught to think for themselves, and this is having a tremendous negative effect on college education.

Let's look at the issue of needing to review after summer vacation. Should this be considered a problem? When I teach my belly dance classes, I always review the steps. Even as we progress, we revisit basic steps. We put them together in different ways. I have had many advanced level students who come back and take beginners classes. Continuous practice is necessary to retain the steps and to grow and develop as a dancer. Mastery comes from years of study and the deepening of knowledge until it exists on a cellular level, and the dancer becomes the dance. Review, repetition, and practical application are necessary for the learning and mastery of any subject. Repetition is especially necessary in early childhood. When a child learns to read, it is common for him to be able to read a particular word on page 1, and by page 4, when he sees the same word again, to have forgotten it.

So does summer vacation cause a deficit in learning retention, or was the information not solidly learned in the first place? Can you still ride a bike? Do you remember the words to your favorite Christmas carols? Can you divide M&Ms evenly among 12 children? Can you recite the Preamble to the Constitution? I can. You know why? Because I learned it on TV during School House Rock on Saturday mornings, set to music and with great cartoons. Here's another School House Rock I can give you right now, with no review, over 30 years after I learned it, really truly, on a cellular level and because I was interested, learned it: "So if you're happy--hurray! Or sad--aw! Or frightened--eek! Or mad--rats! Or excited--wow! Or glad--yeah! An interjection starts your sentence right!! Interjection, for excitement, or emotion, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!!!  Darn! That's the end." If you are of a certain age, I know you are singing along!

I'll leave you with this consideration. For every single Montessori lesson plan, there is a section called, "Points of Interest." What if every teacher had to identify what was potentially interesting about every single lesson she taught, and then what if she had the freedom to teach it using her creativity, reflecting the learning styles of individual students? What if she had 3 years with her students, really getting to know how they learn and what methods work best with each child, giving them the freedom to pursue their interests and the opportunities for real world, practical application? Would retention be an issue at all?

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