After more than 25 years as a classroom teacher, I think I have it figured out. Properly done, the whole school thing — at least for senior high school and university students — boils down to this:
- In the classroom, teachers teach; they explain. Students ask questions in order to understand. They take good notes so that this understanding will be available later. Very little learning happens in class. It's mainly understanding.
- At home or in the library, students process what they have understood in order to learn the material. This can be done by reviewing and summarizing notes and the textbook, by completing homework, writing up labs, etc. This is hard work that requires consistent effort and a lot of time. It is often unpleasant — just ask anyone who took biochemistry.
To further make my point, I'd like to use the "Magic Bullet" of kitchen countertop, infomercial and garage sale fame as a metaphor for what the learning process is and isn't. The makers of the Magic Bullet claim that it is "an entirely new concept in labour-saving devices."1
Good to know.
For those who haven't seen the Magic Bullet pitch on late-night television, here's how it works: You start by placing the ingredients into the device, which is essentially a small blender. Push the button and voilá: minced garlic, a blended iced coffee drink, chunky salsa or a "brisk broccoli soup” worthy of your harshest critic (or your mother-in-law).
But how many Magic Bullets are in use in Michelin-starred restaurants, or in Cordon Bleu cooking schools? The answer has a lot in common with -273 °C. Anyone who owns a Magic Bullet will tell you that the machine promises more than it can deliver, for the simple reason that THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. Real honest-to-goodness cooking does not involve a Magic Bullet, or a microwave oven for that matter.
Good cooking — real cooking — requires time and effort and attention and sweat. The same goes for learning.
Computers are seen by many students and parents and, dare I say, teachers as a magic bullet for learning. I agree —computers can make understanding easier. Who hasn't used a YouTube video to help explain, say, an electrochemical cell? But a student won't learn a thing about electrochemical cells unless he or she hunkers down and processes the material. Yes . . . by using a pencil and paper and by writing notes and diagrams in his or her own words and by doing a bunch of practice problems.
As with cooking, or learning or renovating your basement: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. The sooner that we convince students, parents, administrators and computer salespeople of this, the better off everyone will be.