Studying is a creative process

The basic approaches of learning and teaching

29 APRIL 2016,
Studying is a creative process
Studying is a creative process

In a real classroom there are a lot of factors that change every time and cannot be easily generalized. It’s impossible in a paper like this to take all the variables into account (level and composition of the classroom, social milieu, the competences of the teachers and skills of the students, also state programs, teaching plans of the schools and so on) and–even if that were possible–it would be fruitless, since it would lead to a too-vague discussion. We must limit the discussion to some basic elements (in our case teaching strategies and learning styles) in order to analyze specific dynamics of the learning processes. Anyway, that does not mean that the conclusions I advance here are not useful in concrete situations: the hypothetical situation from which we start is quite similar to what happens every time a teacher explains something directly to a student, even if they are in a class with 20 or 30 other people.

My aim is not to explain to the teachers how to teach, but introduce (and in future articles show) some good strategies for learning. This article serves precisely for this purpose. As an extreme hypothetical case we can take one of the autodidacts, in which, the two figures of the teacher and the student are overlapped in the same person. Effectively, the autodidact must be simultaneously the teacher and the student. I try to explain study methods and strategies of memorization that are good in general, not necessarily for any specific situation. But, before doing this, we need to look again at the question: “which didactic for which personal cognitive preferences?”

There are usually three approaches to teaching and taking account of the learning style theories: the first is to try and identify the learning style of the person and then adjust the teaching to the individual preferences of the person. The second is to teach in a particular ways that contrast the style of the student, that force him in the opposite direction of his natural tendencies. The third is to avoid identifying the style of the learner and use as much variety in teaching and memorizing strategies and techniques as possible in every phase of the educational processes. All these approaches have their strong and weak points. It’s difficult to organize the study plans on a learning style if we don’t know precisely of what this style consists of; moreover, it’s not clear if in this way we facilitate an ‘asymmetric’ development of the individual. But also, the opposite case involves critical issues: if the student works in a way that he doesn’t feel his own, he probably will not give the best of himself, and soon he will lose motivation. In the end, the third approach is, at least, in part dispersive and doesn’t allow the individual to sketch a logical, straight line to the didactics.

I suggest another way of proceeding that starts by drawing a clear distinction between the role of the teacher and that of the student [1]. The teacher's task is to try to understand the predispositions and inclinations of the student and teach him the strategy for studying the subject matters that he has to understand. By contrast, the student has to make the “effort after meaning” and the effort to understand which strategy and which method is better for him in studying a particular subject. So, it is important to evaluate and suitably distinguish the moments in which the things are to be explained. The first moment–before beginning to study a subject, whatever it may be–teachers and students have to address the issue of study methods and mnemonic techniques. Everyone should be aware of the potentiality and able to use these didactic tools. In a second moment, the student has to make the effort to adapt the methods and the techniques of memorization. Then, he has to learn how to apply these tools to the various subjects of study. The teacher, at this stage, plays a role in understanding, supporting, and, consequently, correcting the actions the student undertakes.

It’s a creative process that I suggest here. But it requires that, at the beginning, the teacher makes the major effort to learn study methods and memorize techniques. But, then, it is on the shoulders of the student to maintain responsibility for the success of learning falls. I would like to stress the importance of distinguishing the phases in which the notions are transmitted. Before: the notions about methods and techniques of study and memorizing. Then: understanding their (or our) own cognitive/learning style, and finally applying this stock of knowledge to the particular subjects (foreign language, mathematics, history, literature, sciences etc.). Obviously the stock of knowledge changes from situation to situation, from age to age, etc., but, with the due proportion, it is important that all the learners be aware of what they do.

Once it is understood how the study methods and mnemonics work and we have learned to adapt them to ourselves, then we can integrate them with the things to learn. The teaching of study methods is itself a subject of study that needs to be done before the other subjects: that is the first phase. The second one consists of understanding the subject learning style (and here it needs to be clear: the teacher is also a student, himself, he has to learn first the mnemonics, the styles, theories and the study methods. He is also an active learner. The third phase concerns the adjustment of the strategies to the personality and the cognitive profile of the individual. The fourth phase is to transform the notions now comprised and adapt them to new learning skills and apply them to the school subjects. The fifth and last phase comprises the actions of control, evaluation and corrections. In this respect Joseph Novak says: It is important to recognize that ideally, teachers are also learners and they “negotiate meanings” with their students. This is a complex interaction where all five elements of education should be involved [2].

The five elements that Novak referred to are: teacher, learner, subject matter, context and evaluation. Novak outlines an interesting theory about constructivism in learning. Speaking of that theory is not my task. I would like only to put the reader’s attention upon the list of the five elements mentioned above in a way that he/she has always kept in mind the complete frame of the learning dynamics. I would like to add another element: the individual skills or, better, the tools to improve the individual's (of the student as much as the teacher) skills [3]. The latter mentioned is a topic I want to deepen the knowledge and discuss more widely. Some teachers teach the same way they learned; or, (in a way) they have the inexplicit, subconscious conviction that there are no methods to study. To them, studying is a natural and spontaneous activity like walking or breathing. This isn’t (or is only: in part) a lack on the part of the teachers’, but instead, it’s a fault of the higher levels’ of the educational system.

An additional, a relevant factor is that the scientific community is in complete disagreement on almost everything: cognitive and learning styles, concepts of memory, strategy of studying, etc. But the last one cannot be a reason to abandon the idea of how it can be useful to learn new methods of study and memorization. Cognitive and educational psychologists are well aware of the importance on this issue. In fact, in many schools, universities and other places of education many initiatives have been undertaken in the last years. There is another big problem: not always those who promote or teach mnemonics or study methods are true experts, professional and with the adequate title. Since there are mnemonic techniques that can produce astonishing effects on those who train with them (there are people who can remember hundreds of words or numbers that they listen to only once; there are championships of memorizing, etc.), the whole thing can be mistaken for a magic trick.

On the contrary, there are “experts of all” people that work in the fields of NLP, coaching, etc. that find in mnemonics (and in the various forms of study methods) a way to motivate and/or fortify the personality of their public. Although this is not a problem in itself, it can be confusing as it dissociates techniques and methods from the context that it is their own. In the end, even some (not all fortunate) university scholars tend to propagate their theses rather than analyze the process of learning from a concrete point of view. The truth is that it is quite impossible to do experiments in classrooms that have useful and practical uses—all for the reason that I’ve mentioned above. But, in any case, it is possible to borrow what science discovers. And the science of psychology has already discovered a lot.

Often it happens that the teacher of mnemonics and study methods wants to apply general principles to particular cases. He has to show general principles and/or particular cases for what they are, then stop there. If two plus two equals four, or Shakespeare was a writer and not an astronaut are notions which are always true, the “theory of loci”–for example–is not always equal to itself. For each person it takes on a different connotation, a connotation that can also change from situation to situation, from subject matter to subject matter, even from image to image that anyone can represent.

I repeat myself, but I find it opportune: an honest expert of memory techniques and study methods should never teach the teachers to teach and students to learn. He must stop a moment before and transmit his knowledge in such a way that anyone can freely and profitably apply it to himself and to his work.

Notes:
[1] I refer only about the relationship between learning styles and the role of the learner.
[2] J. Novak, A theory of education: meaningful learning underlies the constructive integration of thinking, feeling, and acting leading to empowerment for commitment and responsibility, Meaningful Learning Review, 2011, V1(2), pp. 1-14.
[3] Novak doesn’t consider this one an element of his list, but put it to another level of his theory. It’s not in question here the theory of constructivism or other similar thesis: I’ve mentioned Novak’s list only because I find it quite complete and functional to my arguments.
[4] I’m not a fanatic of the academic titles, but a good competence is necessary: in this field unfortunately there are a lot of flimflam men who improvise themselves as experts and so do a disservice to those whom they teach. In truth, also academics sometimes fall into this trap since they claim to spread only their verb. It’s not only a problem about how many books someone has read (or written), but to know how to apply a deep knowledge (that is indispensable) of the matter of study methods and mnemonics, in training for teachers and students. A valid educational path that is also given to them (teachers and students) sparks ideas to better carry out their tasks. Sparks and ideas that they then have to develop in a creative way on their own. The improvised experts always end up teaching the teachers to teach and the students to learn. But this is a great mistake.