EW Pulse's Blog
Joined: 14 Jul 2011
Learning Through Understanding: The Cellphone Defense
What makes us remember some things with clarity and others with static and fuzz? Dale Schlundt, an adjunct professor at Palo Alto College, believes it has to do with whether we have achieved true understanding.
During his first day of class, Schlundt gave students an example to which he thought they could easily relate.
“We don’t learn through memorization; we learn through understanding,” Schlundt began. "Imagine going to the local cell phone store to buy a new smartphone,” he told his students.
He continued guiding students through the imaginary store, asking them whether after purchasing a new smartphone, they would remain in the store and study the instructions for the device to ensure that they properly memorized them before leaving.
As you might imagine, his class answered in near unison, “No.”
So what did the students hypothetically do? Exactly what they would have in real life. They had the store's sales associate show them the basics, or they bypassed that step to tear open the box and try it out themselves, instruction-free. Either way, people learn how to use their smartphones by using them, regardless of what they hear or read. People ultimately understand smartphones' applications through their practicality. Schlundt argued that people essentially learn through “understanding what they have to do to achieve their desired result.”
While the concept is simple, applying it to educating isn't. According to Schlundt, “learning through doing” is a tough sell when the content doesn't stimulate students in the same way that new technologies can. It's even tougher when the material is perceived by students as something they'll rarely use, as opposed to smartphones, which they're eager to use daily.
"As my classes are required for college freshmen, an ongoing challenge is engaging students who have no desire to learn the material. Nothing is worse in a student’s eyes than learning something they consider useless, and historical dates or events, by themselves, are just that," Schlundt explained.
Schlundt used the year 1776, when the United States first declared its independence, as an example. He claimed that the date is only significant when one views it in the context of questions for the modern age. In a U.S. history class, Schlundt said, that means asking “What does this mean for you and me? What lessons can we learn from the conflict that are applicable today?”
Schlundt continued his example by explaining that discovering the radical spirit of key individuals in the American Revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, shows the benefits of rebelling against the status quo.
"Today, perhaps this ‘status quo’ means the continued discrimination against certain cultures or socio-economic classes. The specific conclusion of one of my history lessons is not as important as the larger idea that making classes practically relevant to students’ lives will help the content stand the test of time,” he said.
While Schlundt acknowledged that this is easier said than done, he believes it's something he has achieved in his classes.
"By sitting my 28-30 students in a large circle, I have promoted collaborative discussions," Schlundt said. "My lectures have morphed into a unique balance between informal and structured discussions, rather than the conservative lectures we all know so well."
Schlundt believes that teachers' lesson plans should do more to enhance barrier-free teaching and “learning that sticks.” The theory is that memory is a result of process and the generation of ideas, not the recycling of information over time.
Schlundt said he sees excellent results at the college level. He often shares with his students the saying, "Two heads are better than one.” In this instance, he jokes, it turns out that 30 heads triumph over two.
"Students make observations and inferences that I truly would not have thought of, essentially teaching me as much as they are being taught," Schlundt said.
For Schlundt and his students, the more they learn from each other, the more his theory proves to be true.