Friday, February 3, 2012
Go Ahead and Cheat
"For our upcoming midterm, you can use a cheat sheet."
I remember my heart rate would go up. My mind would race. I would begin scheming about how I would really make the teacher pay on this one. I was going to anticipate EVERY conceivable question and problem that my teacher could come up with, and I was going to know the answer. I was going to have examples written the way I wanted them, in a way that worked for me. I was going to draw diagrams that were labelled and color-coded. The formulas would basically solve themselves. And not just that, I would get together with some buddies, and we would collude on all of the different things that our teacher could possibly think of. There would be no way that the teacher could beat us on this midterm. NO way.
And so, with painstaking organization, the development of the cheat sheet would begin. Scouring class notes, my buddies and I would analyze what we felt was important. We would argue and debate. We would find interesting mnemonics to remember different things, some agreed upon and some we would make for ourselves. We would find creative ways to maximize the use of space on our sheets. A couple of us would go to the computer lab and minimize the printed portions and digitize our graphs. The final product was a work of art--we were ready.
An interestingly, when the test day would come, our teacher would have a knowing smile on his face. Each of us would come in brash and brazen, daring the teacher to say "Hey, you can't use that!". We were ready and armed with our retort "YOU SAID we could use a cheat sheet!", but he would never say a word. He would just nod with a rueful smile, as if to say "You guys REALLY got me this time.". We would gleefully write our midterm, smiling and laughing because we had outguessed our teacher. What a sucker, he never should have underestimated us.
We had been afforded the opportunity to be creative in making our cheat sheets. To collaborate with our peers to determine what we might need to be put on them. To think critically about what might be on the midterm. We got to use some computer skills in making our sheets. We learned how to access information and put it into a useable fashion that would allow us to apply it to problems we would face. We learned how to learn.
This is an example from 20 years ago. But in my mind, it is an excellent example of what we need to continue to do with learners in our schools. We need to find ways to make the CONTENT (in my example, the subject of the test, which by the way I couldn't possibly remember) teach our students the PROCESS (making the cheat sheet, of which I pretty much remember every detail).
It is no secret that our students will remember little of the content that is presented to them in schools. For myself, while I do remember how to make a roux from Foods class, spit out a quadratic equation and maybe even do a Punnett square, I have certainly forgotten countless bits of information from thousands of hours spent in classes in high school and university. This is why it is so encouraging to see more and more of the current educational discourse focus upon teaching students to communicate, to collaborate, to think critically, and to acquire the skills that will help them to be adaptable learners in society.
This is not to say that there should be no content within different curricula. I believe there are certain things that are important for students to learn in their educational career. However, if we can approach our content knowing that the likelihood of much of it being retained is not high, I believe that we can begin to look at our lessons in a different manner. In a manner that allows our students to branch out and develop the skills that will allow them to find the problems that have yet to be created and solve them for the future. As a result, I want work with our staff to continue to investigate strategies that have an emphasis on developing skills as much as learning content. To teach skills like those found here...
And maybe like my Physics teacher in high school, I can encourage them to let students 'cheat' on the content to learn the process!