Saturday, June 26, 2021

Off the Shelf:
Why Don't Students Like School?


"Form follows function." That's the architectural maxim attributed to Chicago's "Father of Skyscrapers," Louis Henry Sullivan. It may be a concept applied by functionalists to city buildings, but I see it as a useful thought for other endeavors.

I gave that maxim a twirl the other day, on a drive home from a nearby Starbucks, where a local barista years ago had devised a specially-formulated adaptation of their iced, blended summertime coffee drink to accommodate my dietary concerns. Because of that expression of care for the individual customer, I've been a regular at that location ever since.

Not that it's happily ever after; the company's recent move away from plastic straws via reconfigured lids left no way to stir my special icy drink. The form of the new lids may alleviate use of straws, but compound my difficulty in accessing the drink configured to address my other needs. Solution: having to ask for a dome lid so my straw can access the drink appropriately.

Note to self: the form of the dome lid is what follows the function of needing to continually stir the drink. Hence, my sudden realization that Louis Henry Sullivan's maxim was not only meant for skyscrapers.

Perhaps that may seem a trivial application—though if you wish for a cooling coffee drink as you drive through my valley in a hundred-plus degree heat wave, you may change your mind—but there are other tasks which may fare better with a modified form.

Take teaching. Since my family's business—a training company—has, like all others, had to face rapid modifications in order to survive the past fifteen months, we've had to take stock of how that changing situation impacted our deliverables. In other words, is what we are doing now facilitating learning? Does the form of how we conduct classes follow the function of enabling students to learn?

It's a slam dunk to see that classroom instruction, face to face, is a far cry from holding a training event via teleconferencing means. But what do we do about it?

While you and I, in our genealogy world, may not have thought much about how schools function—whether pre- or post-COVID—the way people are designed to learn brings much to bear, when we look at the conferences, webinars, and even local genealogical society meetings we attend. Or design.

The mind is designed to learn in certain ways, and other ways will leave that brain absolutely flummoxed. Even though we as genealogists are not in the business of training rocket scientists—or even elementary students to learn the rudiments of arithmetic—we can certainly help others learn more effectively about how to pursue their family history by applying some of the concepts being explored in the field of education.

The author of the book I'm now reading—Daniel Willingham's perhaps rhetorically entitled Why Don't Students Like School?—bills himself as a cognitive scientist. In other words, he primarily considers how the mind works in his advice about methodology for the classroom. We can benefit by borrowing from his explanations of how working memory functions, and how engaging a student's natural curiosity—but not too far above their current capabilities—may draw more interest in our programs.

In a series of learn-by-experiencing examples, Willingham lays out his case concerning what works best when introducing new material to students. I, with my mind constantly riveted on all things genealogical, can't help but think of how I can explore these concepts and techniques to improve, say, Introduction to Genealogy classes—especially when paired with online venues such as Zoom.

In my own experience, where in-person classes generated rave reviews, my Zoom-eyed view of participants in online sessions seems to border on either an overwhelmed, drink-from-the-fire-hose experience, or the "underwhelm" of nodding attentiveness coupled with lack of any incentive to try for one's self. Makes me want to reach through the computer screen into students' living rooms; though the nodding and smiling say differently, there is such a feeling of disconnect. Minds are not made to work that way.

Perhaps this author is on to something. While we may be stuck, at least for the current time, with the modality of teleconference meetings, we can learn something from the idea that the form of our students' learning follows the function of the mind which they must engage in order to learn.




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