I’ve embedded below a YouTube clip of one of my favorite moments from the ‘70s sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” It features one of the radio station DJs trying to keep a young man from dropping out of school by engaging him in a bet: If he can teach the young man about the atom in two minutes, then the student must promise to finish out the year in school.
He then delivers a wonderful little lesson, using street gangs as metaphors for protons, neutrons, and electrons. The scene perfectly represents what society views as effective teaching: connecting with students, and relating the material to what’s going on in their lives.
This is all part of the mythology that charismatic, creative teaching is at the heart of providing a great education. I call it a myth because brain scientists have provided us with rich data sets that contradict this view. Here’s a passage from John Medina’s Brain Rules:
“The more a learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding is processed. This principle is so obvious that it is easy to miss. What it means is this: When you are trying to drive a piece of information into your brain’s memory systems, make sure you understand exactly what that information means. If you are trying to drive information into someone else’s brain, make sure they know what it means.
“The directive has a negative corollary. If you don’t know what the learning means, don’t try to memorize the information by rote and pray the meaning will somehow reveal itself. And don’t expect your students will either.”
Charismatic, creative teaching is great. But without meaning, it’s merely an exercise in self-indulgence for the teacher and a source of entertainment for the students.
In an environment in which students are forced to take required classes in subjects they may not be interested in, and given extrinsic motivators like grades, there’s very little room for understanding the point of learning the material. There’s very little room for them to make meaning.
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