Saturday, January 8, 2011

How We Learn (or Don't)

 As I've mentioned, I'm teaching a college intro to religion class  next semester, and one of the books we'll be reading is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which I first read in a high school religion elective class.  I don't remember our discussions with any specificity, but I know that we engaged in them, because for a year there were maybe twelve of us sitting in a circle, and that's what we did ~ discuss.  And we wrote lots of papers.

And, as I've also realized, that little book has had a huge impact upon my approach to life.  As I re-read it last month, it felt completely familiar.

I've read quite of bit of Holocaust literature in the years since, have heard a number of Holocaust survivors speak, and taught many of their grandchildren in my years as an educator in an Orthodox Jewish school.  With each such encounter, my understanding of how to survive trauma and find meaning in apparent meaninglessness has been strengthened.  

Much of that writing has been of help to me in the past two and one-half years.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, whom we also read in that long-ago high school class.  Alfred Delp, S.J., whom I discovered only a few years ago.

Discussion.  Reinforcement.  Application.

How we learn.

In seminary, my first required Old Testament course was presented entirely in a lecture format, and the assessment was entirely objective - multiple choice, fill in the blank, and . . . The Map.  Our professor is an archaeologist, and made an (important) point:  understanding the terrain makes a difference in our understanding of the story.  We had to memorize the map of ancient Israel which, for those of us of a certain age, was quite a challenge.  I put a xeroxed copy, which contained the 50 or so geographical and place names we needed to know, on my bathroom door, and learned about 5 a week.  Ten or so minutes a day most days.  Probably ten-fifteen hours over the course of the term  to learn the whole thing.

The lecturing was brilliantly done, and I have a thick binder of notes that will serve me well throughout my ministerial teaching and preaching life.  No doubt about that.  But did I retain anything?  In the absence of personal engagement of any kind?

No discussion; no essays.  No subsequent  encounter.  And I haven't been to Israel, which would no doubt make a difference.

I'm preaching on Jesus' baptism tomorrow, and I've decided to do a bit of Jordan River geography with the children.  

I realized this morning that I know no Jordan River geography.

So I googled "Jordan River map" and looked at a map of ancient Israel and realized:

Nothing.  No retention whatever.  I could not to save my life have identified a single thing on that map (other than the river running through it).  It was as if I'd never laid eyes on it before.

Memorization.  That's all we did.

NOT how we learn.

(I'm giving the kids messages from a bottle - slips of paper with different names for them to look up on a map so they can report their findings back to me next week.  I know they won't retain the facts for long.  But maybe one of two of them will remember the fun of geographical investigation.)


  1. What they will remember most of all, I have learned as an old man after 30 years of teaching kids in Sunday school,! You and your love of Him; you and your commitment to them. On that will hang, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, little bits and pieces of what you taught, long ago transformed into the Gospel as they have found it to be....

  2. I think I have to disagree with your "how we learn" and "not how we learn" assessment. I realize you are an educator and I am...not; but I think it's too easy to generalize about this, and then function as if our generalizations fit every teaching situation. This is how kids get high school diplomas without really knowing anything.

    Different people learn in different ways. How YOU learn may not be how I learn... How you or I learn TODAY might now be how we learned when we were five, or fifteen, or twenty-five.

    I think a certain amount of memorization is crucial. How else do we really learn language...or things like times tables or spelling (which seems to be a lost art...but that's a rant for a different day.)

    Calling something "not how we learn" may do a disservice to a whole segment of the population who DO learn that way...

  3. I guess we learn a lot of different ways, though I think what you have written is certainly my experience as well. The things I interact with stay with me, except I admit I still remember things I memorized before the age of 8, such as the spelling of antidisestablishmentarianism (which was the longest English word at that time, and quite a coup for a 7 year old.)I do believe your students are going to learn so much from you, and from the gift of being with you.

  4. Excellent points, Lisa.

    Studies do show that lecturing is the least effective method of teaching, but you're right: there are some things we just have to memorize.

    I think I was mostly expressing my frustration at my - not uncommon for our age -- struggles with anything requiring extensive memorization. There was a great deal of that my first year of seminary and for at least one of us (!), it was almost all wasted effort. I memorized for tests and forgot within minutes. My guess is that most of the students in their twenties did not have to devote more than a couple of hours to learning that map, and remember quite a bit of it.

    I am also, of course, reflecting on teaching college students and how to help them engage with challenging material in ways that will give them some of what they need to move into more advanced work.

    But you're right; I shouldn't generalize.

  5. I used to know a big bunch of scientific names for critters, well at the time of the tests I did. But some have lingered for 25 years and they are warm friends when I look at creation.