By Christopher Zoukis
This is the second blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight "Obvious Truths" presented by Alfie Kohn in his "Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn't Be Ignoring," published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.
"Just knowing a lot of facts doesn't mean you're smart."
As with the first post in this series, the fact that useless memorization is ineffective means that we – as educators – need to focus upon our students’ overall understanding, not specific memorized facts. This is because a student can be filled with facts, yet be lost when it comes to connecting the facts and finding "inventive and persuasive ways" of solving problems.
As such, we need to find ways to expand our students’ minds. One method that I have found to be of particular benefit has to do with the way I study for my own college classes and do my own prison education research. Instead of flash cards and pop quizzes, I focus upon notes and the written word. I find that by analyzing the materials at hand, structuring the concepts in a logical order, and writing about them, I retain the information to a much higher degree than simply reading, listening, or drilling. This methodology can be utilized in any correctional education setting.
First, select a topic which interests your students. For example, if you're teaching social studies, ask them what period or area they are interested in. Allow them to select a book out of the library – or a chapter out of a textbook – and use that as their text. Have them read the piece THEY selected. This will encourage them to "buy-in" to the assignment. As they read, ask them to take notes and jot down quotes from it because they will be writing an essay about it.
Second, after they finish reading, ask them to create an outline to explain what they just read; hence, reading comprehension, a fundamental aspect of the GED tests. Then suggest that they scan back over the materials which they have just read. By doing so, the existing flow of the work can influence the structure of the students’ work.
Third, have them further develop their outline until it is detailed enough to write a first draft. I would suggest that the students be pushed to look back over the material yet again for more supporting information. Each time they find more supporting information, it will enhance the topic in their mind.
Fourth, have the student write the first draft. They should follow their outline so that the structure will remain intact. By writing about the topic at hand, they have to understand it. By doing a decent job of writing the essay, you can rest assured that your students are learning.
Fifth, have them revise not only for grammar, but for content. If you can find an article online or another condensed piece of writing on the topic, pass it to them and ask them to look over it. Wikipedia would be a good place to find such information. By this point, the student will have a greater understanding of the topic and will know what they are looking for. Hence, the additional source material will further support the existing knowledge and solidify it in their minds.
Last, have the students turn- in their essays or read them to the class. You could even find some other fun way for them to utilize the essays (e.g. in a newsletter, in a file for them to keep, or even on a blog). By making the lesson interactive, and prompting good work with recognition, the student will want to do better. This is positive reinforcement at its best.
As you can see, this is a research and writing intensive method of learning about a certain topic. One might argue that this is too much work for an incarcerated student to take on. I plainly disagree. Essays and papers are so universal that they can be utilized with any subject and for any level of adult student. Hence, a student at the 6th grade level in reading and writing – where many in prison reside – can write at the 6th grade level and a student at the 10th grade level can write at the 10th grade level. Both will benefit equally from an exercise such as this.
I suppose that the real question that all correctional educators should be asking themselves is: What is learning? To me, learning is the study of something new and the implementation of the newfound knowledge. Sure sounds like reading and writing to me. Or, in other words, absorbing and utilizing.