In this recent blog post, psychology professor Nate Kornell explores a fascinating aspect of learning: challenge. He argues that clarity can actually be an impediment to learning, as it is only through challenges that people correct their misconceptions and reach true understanding.
As a former teacher and life-long student, I find this to be very true. As much as we are wont to believe that students miraculously learn through a teacher-dictated-top-down approach, learning is really a self-directed process. As Kornell states, “According to growing mountain of research, understanding isn’t enough. It’s the struggle that makes us learn.”
Personally, as a student, this makes a lot of sense to me. In high school, I excelled on AP exams not because my teachers were exceptional (which is not to say they weren't wonderful teachers), but because I pushed myself. I was also incredibly proud, and found it difficult to ask for help, instead pouring over the intricacies of problems until I reached a thorough understanding.
For example, I remember studying factoring in my 8th grade pre-algebra class. To me, factoring did not make sense, but everyone else in my class found it easy. I was personally dissatisfied with the complete-this-series-of-steps approach that my classmates took, and instead intensively dug into my textbook during my free time (I probably wasn't the most fun kid to be around, but that's neither here nor there...) until I had a conceptual understanding of quadratic equations. A few weeks later, the problems grew more difficult, requiring thoughtfulness and number sense. It was then that I had the upper hand on math over my classmates, but it would not have been this way if not for the failures and struggles through which I'd labored. Now that I've been in the education game for a bit longer, I understand this to be an inefficient/time-intensive way of operating, but I can look back and see the value; Everything that I studied, I learned completely.
Teachers can take away a lot from Kornell's argument. The best teachers are those who produce environments wherein students can learn, explore, make meaning, thoughtfully deconstruct problems, build off of each other's knowledge, question themselves and each other, and muddle through challenges. Notice, I did not say “listen to lectures and take notes.” Of course, this sort of teaching is extremely challenging, itself, as it requires an intense amount of foresight.
It also requires that teachers let go and let students regain control of their learning. Teachers tend to spend hours on lesson plans, learning the material and thinking about how to best present it. All this does is make very smart teachers and very poor students, as students are robbed of the learning process. For most teachers, especially new teachers, the idea of student-centered learning is a scary proposition, as it is very common to feel the need to have strict control over a classroom, its ideas, and its voices at all times. However, this is a hindrance to students' learning, and, on a more significant level, their academic freedom.
It is also difficult to teach in this way because students, themselves, are terrified of making mistakes. They have learned throughout the years-- no doubt aided by the current high stakes testing educational environment-- that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. And no one wants to be wrong. However, as we have seen, learning really only occurs through failure. Without recognizing our mistakes and correcting them, there is no deeper knowledge of an issue. Additionally, it has recently been proven that students gain confidence and perform better when failure is explicitly acknowledged as a part of the learning process. With that said, teachers should strive to create environments where it is safe to be curious, to hazard guesses, to make mistakes, and to learn from failure.