>>EdId 01>> “Learning to be” vs “Learning about”

This article is my first article in my series on Education and Identity.

In my previous post last week, which was just an appetiser, I introduced the notion of ‘identity’ in education.  We see that ‘identity’ is not just a very powerful motivational force, but that education itself may be viewed in terms of “learning to be” or the development of identities of students. Today, we will discuss “Learning to be” (identity development) vs “Learning about” (superficial content acquisition).  If you have not already done so, please refer to this article (pp. 5–10) by John Seely Brown.  The rest of the paper is actually also worth reading, because it contains various good ideas to develop students’ identities (not least in terms of a deeper engagement, in terms of developing habits of mind and disciplinary thinking and in terms of participation in a community of learners) using technology in various settings.

It is worth noting that even Brown, who is a tech giant and math giant compared to myself, emphasises disciplinary practices and “learning-to-be” (identity development), rather than just hyping about technology or the latest fads or being contented with “learning about” (a mere nodding acquaintance with the material). There must be something about this ‘identity’ thing. Technology is not unimportant. But it must be thoughtfully used in context to bring about desired changes in students’ participation, in their habits of mind, their values and ways of looking at the world, and ultimately, building up who they are or are becoming.  Technology, without the appropriate epistemological practices (e.g. how one goes about knowing, learning and solving an unfamiliar problem, getting stumped, finding a creative break-through and bouncing back, … etc.), will not effect a change in the way students learn, nor in their habits, nor their attitudes, nor in the way students view the subject discipline.  In fact, this will only entrench ineffective old practices, damaging students’ true education more efficiently than ever before.

It is sad to observe that in most schools, students are usually taught just the “content”, which seem to somehow fall unproblematically from the sky into the textbook. Formulas are not discovered, but students are asked to memorise them. “Who cares about the derivation of formulas? Students are not smart enough to understand them anyway! Besides, these are usually not required in the exams.” says the average maths teacher, hiding his/her own ignorance about the process of derivation. Students (and many school teachers) do not know the struggles that even geniuses like Newton and Einstein have to go through to (as it were) bring the knowledge of Mathematics and Science from Plato’s Realm of Ideals down to Planet Earth, not unlike the struggles that Prometheus went through to steal fire from the gods to introduce it to mankind.

The types of maths problems one gets in school are those that can supposedly be solved within 20 minutes, or sometimes 5 minutes or less. Very often, the teachers (viewed as geniuses or sages) just teach by presenting the solutions in a linear fashion from start to finish, without showing the thinking processes of trying, failing, backtracking, debugging what went wrong, creating a new strategy, checking the reasonableness of the answers … etc which are some of the standard practices mathematicians routinely enact. Students usually do not see teachers struggle through a real problem. Teachers are embarrassed to make mistakes in front of students, and may even be labelled as “bad” teachers. But when students themselves encounter difficulties with their homework for more than 5 minutes, they just think they are born stupid and they simply give up. They get a very distorted view of mathematics. The real mathematics, the one that mathematicians actually experience, entails the patience-defying and excruciating frustration of working, re-working and re-re-working, and finally (if Lady Luck smiles) the exhilarating top-of-the-world feeling of ecstasy and euphoria.  This intense rush of dopamine into the brain, being unpredictable and unperiodic, is very addictive, behaviourist psychologists tell us.  Students in school seldom experience this joy of maths, because they do not practice the patience and grit to go through the oft-necessary preliminary struggle.  They expect mathematical knowledge to come nicely packaged, to be opened via some fixed set of tactics without much critical thought.  To most students, mathematics is just a matter of following some routines.  They feel that there is nothing creative about mathematics, because what they do in maths classes frequently jar with their identities as creative individuals when engaging in non-math activities.  By contrast real mathematics is an intensly creative activity. For example, no one taught Newton about gravity and calculus, he had to invent them!  So can you see the disconnect?  Can you see why students are often cheated of a real mathematics experience?  Can you see why identity development is important in education?

I hope this article helps you understand some of the issues of education (e.g. of mathematics and science) as viewed from an ‘identity’ perspective.  Next week, we discuss how a learner’s role in participation as well as a sense of who he/she wants to be career-wise affect his/her learning.

Some starters to check your comprehension:-
Q1) What are the differences between “Learning to be” vs “Learning about”?
Q2) Which type of learning do you think is deeper? why?
Q3) Which type of learning is more relevant to the 21st Century? Why?
Q4) How was Prof Halmos’ example different from typical classroom practice? How did Halmos open Brown’s eyes to what it is like to be a mathematician, instead of just knowing about some maths (or “math” as Americans call it)?

Some (main course) food for thought:-
Q5) With the above-mentioned kinds of typical classroom practices, what sort of identities are being engendered in students? i.e. What kind of persons will students end up becoming? Will they become critical thinkers? Are they the sort of people who persevere or do they give up easily? Do the classroom practices help students to become creative in problem solving? Will students become people who habitually want to figure things out for themselves? Will students become selfless sharers of knowledge?
Q6) Recently a mobile phone app just came out that “helps” students with algebra problems. Just use a smart-phone, take a picture of the maths question and voilà! It solves the algebra problem and gives the answer! It can even give the step-by-step solution! In terms of identity development, is this “educational” app apt? Or how would you adapt this app?

In the following week, we discuss Students’ Identities in Learning.  If you have any thoughts, ideas or comments, please tweet in #edsg, or leave a respons below.


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