Guest commentary: Rethink approach to learning

by JERRY H. GILL

I am writing this piece to express my deep disappointment with the current efforts on both the local and national levels to equate the educational process with quantification and uniformity. In my view, education should be about student engagement, interaction and growth, not organized numerical cataloging. The results of learning will show up in the way students think and behave in life.

Let me begin by saying that education is really about exercising our mental capacities, much the way we would exercise our bodily muscles, or practice certain techniques in a studio class. The main point is not the course material itself, since students will soon forget this and can always look it up when needed. What we are really about is helping students learn to think creatively and analytically. This requires active participation and discussion rather than simply listening, memorizing and forgetting. The skills acquired here are not really quantifiable “outcomes” that can be cataloged and systematized.

To better explain what I mean, let me share briefly the way I structure my own classes here at Pima Community College. To be sure, my way of teaching in Humanities courses does not fit all subject matters, but I think that in principal it does get to the heart of what real education is all about. First off, I think it is important to give attention to the way a classroom is arranged. I try to arrange the seating so that it comes close to a semi-circle, with some students sitting up front on one side of the room and myself on the other. This arrangement greatly facilitates discussion because we can all see and hear each other better. Sad to say, it is not usually possible to rearrange the remaining students’ desks.

I divide the class into rotating “sparker” groups of roughly 6 students each, and in each class period a different group is up front with me. Each group gets up front four times in a semester. The students in the “up front” group write and share a short paper in which they focus on something important in that day’s reading assignment, which then becomes the topic of discussion for that day’s textbook assignment.

I read, write criticisms and suggestions and evaluate these papers and give them back at the next meeting of the class. It is vital that the students get feedback on their work as soon as possible. At the end of each section of the course, every student writes a longer paper on a take-home, open-book assignment integrating the material of that section. I name these papers “Integrative Educational Experiences” and they count as double. I find tests to be counter-productive to real learning in the sorts of courses I teach because they create undue psychological pressure. Time factors have little to do with developing critical thought and insight.

In each class we discuss the students’ papers, while I serve as moderator and “secretary,” briefly summarizing what students are saying on the whiteboard, asking questions and sharing my own thoughts from time to time. As the discussion progresses, other students in the class are encouraged to participate. I find this format highly conducive to strong student engagement, both with the key ideas in the course and with one another. Many students “find their own voice” and learn to listen seriously to others. True dialogue takes place, as opposed to the one-way communication of information.

It is important to emphasize that that these classroom discussion sessions are neither mere glorified bull-sessions nor debates, but rather they are serious exchanges among young people who are desirous of getting a better grip on some big issues. I teach the Philosophy of Religion, New Testament and Intercultural Perspectives, and each of these courses raises and pursues important questions and openness to new ideas, critical thinking and diverse values. It is exciting to engage together in exploring significant issues of the past, the present and the future from different perspectives and angles.

Over the years, many of my students have expressed pleasure and shown growth in relation to this quality based approach to their educational experience. I try to be both thorough and concrete, as well as honest, when remarking on their written work and their classroom participation always factors in as well. Through this process students “learn to learn” rather than simply producing certain prearranged “outcomes.” Quality outweighs quantity ever time.

Another way to express what I am getting at is focused in the contrast between process and product.

One must trust that the value of real educational growth will reveal itself in the process.      

Gill is an instructor of humanities at Pima Community College.

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