Teaching challenges 2: drilling and memorising

@robcorr has plopped this interesting quote up on his tumblr:

Vygotsky himself was absolutely clear that students do not learn by rote memorization. He states: “scientific concepts are not simply acquired or memorized by the child and assimilated by his memory but arise and are formed through an extraordinary effort of his own thought”, and contemporary scholars have argued that Vygotsky did not advocate the use of a simple “transmission” model of learning. Indeed, if we envision the ZPD [Zone of Proximal Development] not as a static zone to pass through or reach the end of, but rather as the continual unfolding of a zone of development that extends just beyond the growing, ever-developing ALD [Actual Level of Development] of the student, then we are more prone to understand teaching as an active, process-oriented relationship with ebbs and flows, growth and stagnation, leaps and pauses. To envision the ZPD of a student in such a way, a way that embraces learning and teaching as intertwined, dynamic, dialectical processes, does not allow for a simple transmission model of education. Rather, such a pedagogical vision requires that we be student-centered in our understanding ofwhere a student is developmentally, by building our instructional relationships based on that level of development, and by using ongoing, concentric feedback loops for the teacher or more capable peer to continually assess where a given student’s ALD and ZPD may lie. Additionally, we must remember that teachers, as developing individuals themselves, also have their own ALD and ZPD with regard to their understanding of both their teaching practice and their students. To recognize this also challenges the use of transmission models of teaching and learning within Vygotsky’s framework because it assumes that teachers themselves are also learning, developing, and growing. As Freire correcdy argues, such a conception of teaching and learning does not allow for didactic forms of instruction. Because neither teacher nor student are perfectly formed, all involved in educative relationships are in the process of learning and re-learning themselves and each other.
(Wayne Au, “Vygotsky and Lenin on learning: The parallel structures of individual and social development”, Science & Society, vol 71, no 3
(Source: lchc.ucsd.edu))

Yes, this dovetails nicely with my previous post ‘teaching challenges’, but more interestingly (for me), it resonates with criticisms of positivism in research practice. In a positivist research method, the assumption is that a researcher can simply extract ‘facts’ from the field through objective research.
In contrast, critical theory (especially in reference to the Frankfurt School) makes it clear that we can’t really do objective research in communities and culture, as who we are affects not only the way we interpret data gained in research, but how we collect data and devise research projects and tasks. Instead, it’s much more useful to go into a research project assuming that you’ll be doing subjective research. As a feminist scholar, I’d argue that it’s important that we then also clearly state who we are when we write about our research, and that we work to become aware of our privilege or power or lack thereof.

What does this have to do with drilling as a teaching tool? Drilling assumes that a teacher can just inject information into a student’s head, and that drilling is how we make this information stick. If you follow this thought to its ‘logical’ conclusion, if the information doesn’t stick, then the student simply hasn’t drilled enough; the fault is with the student.

But teaching isn’t science, and teaching and learning aren’t objective methods. They’re a complex relationship with all sorts of interesting things going on. By embracing diversity in a student cohort, and by embracing the idea of teacher not as objective scientist, we open our learning up to all sorts of happy unexpectedness. Also with the creativity.

…if I had more time and knew anything at all about the stuff in Rob’s quote up there, I’d like to go on and interrogate the concept of ‘cultural transmission’ in dance. There, the idea is that particular dance steps move between generations within a community, between communities, and across time through a range of unregulated channels. As I said in that last post, utility and cultural relevance determine whether or not a particular dance step is taken up or abandoned. It’s not a neat, clean, process, no matter how much Arthur Murray would have liked to think so. The most robust, socially sustainable dance communities do not centre on formal dance classes, they rely on – are built on – unregulated, uninstitutionalised creative practice. This, of course, is where I paint myself into a corner. If I was SRS about jazz dance as a vernacular dance, I wouldn’t teach in formal classes, I’d be all about informal teaching and learning on the social dance floor, in domestic spaces, and so on. I do battle with this tension. But my own way of dealing with it is to encourage our students to teach other people what they’ve learnt. To take their steps to the social floor and lead them, to actively take an hour with friends to show them how a step works, and to choreograph routines that incorporate this material. See one, do on, teach one.
The challenge for me, then, comes when I see other dancers who’ve never come to our classes benefitting from all the hard transcription, practice and teaching preparation we put into our poorly paid classes. Yes, that is the point of it – to see this stuff spring to life on the social dance floor. But then I’d also kind of like to make a bit of money for all our hard work. This, of course, is where I say to myself, “Self! Get over yourself! You can’t own a dance! And if you try, you are DOING IT WRONG.” Then I remind myself of Frankie: “Do it once and it’s yours, do it twice and it’s mine,” and take my sorry arse off to the studio to do some goddamn practice.

(NB this photo is by Helen Levitt, but I’m not sure what year :( )

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