Thursday, February 21, 2008

Learning beyond the classroom

Nobody ever taught me how to French braid. When I was a girl, my grandmother tied three thick strands of colorful yarn to a drawer handle and showed me how just, plain braiding worked, and I practiced on those until I had the feel of it. Braiding hair, though the same motion, takes a bit more coordination because the strands don't stay together by themselves. I figured out French braiding on my own many years later. I was laying on my bed, playing with my hair, and reinvented the technique for myself based on how I knew braiding worked and how I knew French braiding looked and felt. I've never French-braided anybody's hair but my own.

There are other things I've figured out on my own. I've had some formal training in technical drawing, but a lot of my drawing, both technical and especially artistic, I learned by fiddling with it, making mistakes, noticing what works and what doesn't, and just practicing.

With languages, there is a great gulf between pushing grammar exercises around and actually carrying on a conversation or reading real material. We do not learn our mother tongues by having somebody explain what a noun is*, and ultimately, we do not do well in additional languages without being exposed to them and then muddling along for a while. That's not to say that formally learning the grammar isn't valuable, but rather that it's not too effective by itself.

In many ways, I think that knowledge I acquire this way, and especially procedural knowledge, sticks a lot better than the sort that someone just tells me. When I used to have to memorize music for marching bands, I'd play it plenty of times, get familiar with it, then turn away from the music stand and feel it out all over again. Finding it for myself made it stick like repetition never could.

I've learned a great deal from teachers in classrooms, teaching in the traditional manner, or slight variations of it, but I have to wonder whether students, and especially students who are heavily kinesthetic learners, would be better served by a learning environment more geared toward guided experimentation and discovery. I think such an approach would more closely resemble the real world, as well. It is a process worth being comfortable with: experimentation, debugging, invention.

*A notable exception here is the written component of language. While I imagine that determination and practice could improve a person's ability to read given some basic knowledge, the beginnings seem by and large to require some sort of training. I'd be interested to know to what extent reading could be self-taught. If you know of any discussions or studies on the subject, please drop me a note.

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Blogger llywrch said...

You ask whether it is possible for people to tech themselves how to read. I may be a unique case here (although I doubt it), but I taught myself how to read, more or less. The process was simple: it started at an early age, when my parents would read a book to me at bedtime. These were not high-brow books, just children's books with pictures. I think most of them were part of the "Little Golden" series, purchased at the local grocery store.

What I did was to look at the words while they were read to me. I don't know at which point I started to pair the strings of letters with the meanings, but I do remember occasions when I read the page silently faster than my father (he read to me more often than my mother) read out loud.

As a result, I started first grade with a clearly advanced skill in reading. I remember reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells by fourth grade, and Thoreau's _Walden_ & Homer's _Odyssey_ in the sixth grade. Unfortunately, due to other things, I failed to maintain this advantage over my peers.


22 February, 2008 10:21  

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