15 May 2011

Significance and Learning

            One of the most valued characteristics of an effective learner is the ability to discern significance. Being able to participate in a lesson and tell the difference between what is important and what is extraneous is essential to learning.
I have been thinking about this issue whilst constructing a study skills session for a junior year group who have exams soon. (Whether exams are suitable methods of assessment is not up to me in this instance!) The material I am preparing is all about different ways to make study notes such as mind maps, tables, flow charts and so on. 
In order to make notes the learner needs to be active in their review of the material, decide on the significant information and synthesise that information into smaller chunks. This process requires fairly deep levels of concentration and reduced distractions. Some people can perform this process of discernment without being taught how but many of today’s students find this challenging.
If we are to believe Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, then the Internet is a factor which affects this process of distinguishing what is significant and what is not. I will comment in more detail on this fascinating book in a later blog post, but it is enough to say that Carr offers a plethora of evidence to support his notion that the Internet is a medium of distraction. As most students are frequent Net surfers, both at school and home, Carr suggests that this has changed the way they are able to process information, having difficulty with long-form texts and deep concentration. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that some of today’s students lack the attentiveness required for revision and find it difficult to determine what the most salient feature of a text is. Even before the Internet, some students always found this process hard.
So it would seem to me, if schools are going to have exams, then schools should make time for students to learn how to discern significance. For many teachers this is part of their repertoire of effective teaching practices. They will bookend their lessons with the learning goals and/or emphasise important points. They might keep a wall chart (or word document, flow chart, graphic representation, etc) of each lesson’s significant learning. They will show students how to summarise information through their regular teaching and learning activities. And whilst this may mean reducing content, a point I made in my previous blog post, the focus on the skill of discernment is vital.
Teachers and schools need to be involved in this process. In the long run, it will benefit students beyond school, enabling them to engage discerningly in further education, politics, media, culture, in other words, life. 

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