Texas Ed: Comments on Education from Texas

October 23, 2006

Best practices for learning

Filed under: Higher Education, Homeschooling — texased @ 6:51 am

I realize that the quality of higher education has recently been cast in doubt by Spelling and company, but nonetheless, I think my post-secondary education has provided me with some valuable lessons for homeschooling.

I took the basic US History Before 1865 in a general freshman class at the University of Texas at El Paso. There were at least 100 students in the class and I can’t remember the professor’s name but everyone knew he wore a toupee since it had a habit of shifting in the wind. Anyway, large intro class, you would expect basic multiple-choice exams and formula lectures.

Not quite. We had the standard textbook and expected lectures. But we also were assigned several other textbooks, including After the Fact. Now I never remember names but I do remember this book. Just before the first exam, we were required to come up with five essay questions that could be on the test. They had to be comprehensive in nature and we had to document where the answers could be found from our reading. If one of your questions was choose, you received a significant extra point bonus added to your final test score. During the class before the exam, the professor broke us up into groups and handed out five questions that had been submitted and of which three would be on the exam. Each group worked together to answer as many of the essay questions as possible during class.

I would guess that the professor didn’t receive too many questions that he had never seen before. But I don’t think that was the point. Rather, the students had to take responsibility for understanding the material well enough to be able to ask the questions and provide the answers. Ultimately, he wasn’t transferring knowledge to us but facilitating us learning how to process and analyze information.

This philosophy of education is most evident in graduate classes and beyond. At the highest level of education, the student must teach herself. My first reader for my Master’s Report was a statistician but in no way an expert in the method I was using for my analysis. I was the one answering his questions. My second reader was broadly familiar with education policy but had never worked directly with dropout data. If I was homeschooling, people would be asking me how could I learn if my teachers didn’t know the subject well enough to teach it to me? I think the more appropriate question would be how do we expand our knowledge if we assume knowledge is static and people can’t learn without someone else teaching the specific information?

For a while, my husband taught in a pharmacy school. The mantra of the classroom professors was “stay one day ahead of the students.” There was just too much new information to do otherwise. Most of the faculty were just out of graduate school themselves and their specialities often had little to do with the basic classes they were teaching. And when the residents asked questions while on rounds, the preceptor would respond with “that’s a really good question, why don’t you look up the answer and bring it tomorrow?” That way he would learn the answer as well as the other students on the rounds.

So when you’re wondering how homeschoolers can possibly have all the expertise to teach all the subjects children are supposed to learn through high school, remember that they don’t have to. The basic premise of education is to learn how to learn. If your child is able to memorize Yu-Gi-O cards on his own and is your technical support in programming your Ti-Vo, why wouldn’t he be able to master algebra or read Shakespeare?


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