Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Learning and Doing

From 3QuarksDaily, this article from Seed Magazine: "How We Know" by Jonah Lehrer. It begins by describing the Algebra Project and its founder, Bob Moses:

Instead of confronting students with abstract equations, Moses took them out into the real world, traveling around Boston in search of experiences that could demonstrate the practical uses of math. A ride on the T became a lesson in coordinate graphing and negative numbers. Neighborhood landmarks stood in for integers. When Moses taught students about displacement, he had them measure the dimensions of their own bodies. The first rule of Moses' math class was that students always had to "participate in a physical event."
In short, students were learning math by doing things. Math wasn't an abstract topic but rather a way of solving real life problems:

By taking his students outside the classroom, Moses made math a part of everyday life: He realized that the brain wasn't designed to deal with abstractions it doesn't know how to use, or to solve variables while sitting at a desk. Our knowledge, Moses intuited, is a by-product of activity. What we end up knowing is what we can learn how to use. We learn by doing.

Moreover, this is supported by brain science:

The human mind understands the world by interacting with it. When we see an inanimate object that we are familiar with, our mirror neurons instinctively imagine what they could do with that object. A tennis racquet causes our cells to imagine swinging it; a violin causes our cells to imagine playing it. If you happen to be taught algebra by Bob Moses, a math equation might trigger thoughts of taking the subway.

What does this have to do with American philosophy? Well, a lot. The connection between learning and doing was championed by John Dewey over a century ago.

[Dewey's] mission was to "reinstate experience into education"; as a result, Laboratory students spent most of their day outside the classroom, engaging in activities such as sewing, carpentry and cooking. But these activities weren't simply exercises in manual labor. Rather, they were demonstrations of "active learning."
But sadly a scientifically supported, Deweyan educational philosophy runs afoul of standardized testing:

Dewey's insights are needed now more than ever. His curriculum, by collapsing what he called "the invidious distinction between learning and doing," took full advantage of our mirror neuron circuit. Unfortunately, in the age of standardized testing, US schools have given up on Dewey's experiential approach—and the difficulties faced by the Algebra Project exemplify this trend. Even in districts where the curriculum has been an unambiguous success, it has fallen victim to standardized testing. Not long after the Cambridge public schools reported two-fold increases in advanced math enrollment among Algebra Project graduates, the project was quietly shut down. "It's really a tragedy," says Lynne Godfrey, who is still a math teacher in Cambridge."
The rest of the article is well worth reading. One of Lehrer's examples is Toyota, which appears to have incorporated Dewey's insights into its manufacturing plants. This, Lehrer suggests, goes a long way to explaining why Toyota is making record profits while companies like Ford and GM are closing plants.


Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I've been working on incorporating "active" learning techniques in undergrad philosophy for a while now. It is kind of hard, simply because the material is abstract. I have found that having formal in-class debates works well to teach arguments on certain topics. I also include presentations on applied ethics topics with a requirement that they do independent research and make a conclusion.

I just found your blog and love it!! Thanks!

5:52 PM  

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