Thursday, February 25, 2010

Discovery is More Powerful than Instruction

I remember when I was a child carrying rocks in a bucket.  My friends and I were building a dirt and stone city for our matchbox cars to drive in and I was carrying away some of the rubble from our construction.  I was swinging the bucket back and forth and felt that the dirt was pulling away from my hand as I swung the bucket.  Fascinated by this, I swung the bucket faster and higher until I could swing the bucket around in circles without any rocks falling out, even when the bucket was upside down and over my head.

As soon as I got home, I showed my dad my great discovery.  While my physicist father knew that centrifugal force had been discovered long before I was born, he also knew that in my limited experience, this was a new discovery.  All my father did was beam with pride and pleasure that his son had made a discovery and was in awe of the world around him.

Imagine the different experience I would have had if my father had sat me down for a lecture about centrifugal force instead of experiencing my discovery.

Traditional classrooms operate under a broadcast paradigm.  The assumed expert (the teacher, book, film, etc…) imparts information that the student-consumer is supposed to absorb.  Periodically, the route is reversed and the student must broadcast her information back to the teacher for evaluation.  The more the two broadcasts match, the higher the grade.

Unlike Boomers and Gen X'ers, children born into a digital world are not passive consumers of broadcasts.  They may still listen to music or watch television, but they spend far more time than any previous generation interacting with the media they consume.  They don’t listen to the Top-10 on a radio; they create their own custom play list on their iPod.  They don’t channel surf, they surf the Internet. 

Classroom 2.0 should focus on interaction and discovery and forgo broadcast.  In my social studies class, we are beginning to make this change.  Instead of listening to lectures about ancient China, Mesopotamia, Rome, or Egypt, my students interact with primary source documents.  They read Suetonius’s description of the water projects undertaken by Emperor Claudius and the Code of Hammurabi.  They look at aerial photographs of drainage ditches in Italy and satellite images of ancient levees in Mesopotamia.  They do this in order to write an essay that answers the question, “How did the need for water effect the technological, political, economic, and legal development of the world’s first civilizations?”

They struggle mightily with these documents.  They ask lots of questions of me and of their teams.  I have heard, “I don’t get it” countless times.  They have gotten frustrated with me because I wont “just tell [them] the answer.”  There have even been a few tears.  However, when we hit that moment of discovery; when my students get, really get, that they can see the political and economic cooperation among the city-states of Mesopotamia because the levees are vast and intersect with each other; that moment is indescribable.  They don’t need me to tell them that I am proud of them, because they are proud of themselves.  They don’t need me to be proud of them, but I am.  All I can do is beam with pride and pleasure at my students who have made a discovery and are in awe of the world around them.

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