Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series (Part 1)

As one of my professional development tasks, I read all I can on education, student development, and better practices for teachers. I do so because I'm not a formally educated instructor. I'm a guy who made some bad decisions when I was a senior in high school. Hence, I came to prison. And, it was here that I hit my educational stride, both in terms of teaching and learning.

The other day I was reading the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest and I came across a terrific piece by Alfie Kohn entitled ‘Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn't Be Ignoring.’ In this essay he notes obvious truths such as memorization not being all that it is cracked up to be, that knowing a lot of facts doesn't make a person smart, and that students are more likely to learn what they find interesting than what they don't.

While these were focused upon teaching children, I found many aspects could be easily adapted to the incarcerated student. After all, many in American prisons suffer from learning disabilities, social issues, and a low level of education, aspects which are more indicative of children than adults. With this being said, I think that several of Mr. Kohn's ‘Obvious Truths’ can be modified to assist the prison educator in their vocation.

Since Mr. Kohn's ‘Obvious Truths’ made such a profound impact upon me, I've decided to develop a series based upon eight of his ten ‘Obvious Truths.’ In each of the eight posts in this series, you will find the heading of one of Mr. Kohn's ‘Obvious Truths,’ followed with my personal thoughts. The credit for the idea/inspiration of each section lies solely with Mr. Kohn, but the content is mine. It should also be noted that – at times – my editorials will not be squarely focused upon his stated topic, but derived from it.

If you're interested in reading more about these ‘Obvious Truths’, you can pick up Mr. Kohn's latest book, Feel-Bad Education ... And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling (Beacon Press, 2011). Do note that Mr. Kohn's title deals with traditional education, not correctional education as I'm doing so here.

Here is the first blog post in this series:

"Much of the material students are required to memorize is soon forgotten."

It is almost overwhelmingly agreed that memorization is not a good technique for learning. By giving a student a list of vocabulary terms, dates, or facts to memorize, the student will – hopefully – manage to cram the information in long enough to pass the test, but what about after the test.

Does anyone really need to know in what year Louis Pasteur was born (1822) or when he developed the process of pasteurization (1862 was when the first test was completed)? Or, is it more important to understand what pasteurization is and what it does? Is it more important to know in what country he lived (France) or what awards he won? Or, is it more important to understand how scientific theory and investigation work? I think that all of us can agree that we'd prefer for our students to understand the concepts and the benefits, as opposed to the dates and locations.

As correctional educators, we must find a middle ground. Yes, our students must be prepared to pass the GED tests. Yes, our students must be taught to read and to perform basic mathematical computations, but they don’t need to be forced to perform pointless acts of memorization.

I implore all who teach prisoners to look at the larger picture. Most of us have to focus upon preparing our students to pass the GED. With the exception of the mathematics examination, the GED is focused upon reading comprehension and writing (in the English essay portion). Hence, there is no need to force students to learn dates and times, but learn basic operations.

A Self-Paced Adult Continuing Education course that I recently completed – ‘The American Revolution’ – serves as a good illustration. The course was based upon watching a number of documentary videos. I learned about how the colonists revolted against the British, how the Stamp Act enraged the colonists, and even about Paul Revere's ride. While I knew some of this prior to watching these videos, my knowledge on the topic was certainly expanded.

My problem lies with the final examination and – somewhat – with the delivery of the material. The final exam was not based upon the larger concepts, concepts like honor, national pride, the removal of the yoke of oppression, or even strategies that each of the armies used. On the contrary, the questions were based upon where the British landed, what British general attacked from Canada, and which French officer trained Washington's troops. I would have much rather been tested upon the general themes which actually matter, as opposed to names, dates, and numbers.

As for the delivery of the material, passive absorption is usually not a good idea. I agree that it is better than nothing – especially when there is a lack of qualified teachers and other materials – but, this course really could have been much more. The focus should have been upon, as Kohn notes, material which is "oriented...to a deep understanding of ideas," not "factual material." The focus of the course could have imparted the story of America's independence and the founding of our nation, not where and when events happened.

I suppose that the answer is to make as many learning experiences as possible based upon solving problems and pursuing projects that are "personally meaningful." Hence, an essay – as opposed to a multiple choice examination – would not only have cemented the knowledge imparted by the videos, but it would have forced the student to show that they did indeed not only learn the material at hand, but understand it, too. By doing so, the student would understand the larger themes and connections, not, as Kohn notes, be "...forced to memorize so much stuff that we know they won't remember."