Sunday, November 29, 2015

Students React to Memorizing and/or Manipulating Ideas

I’ve been assigning pretty large doses of meta-cognitive journaling lately (see here, here, and here). I’m a big fan of having folks think about their learning. I hadn’t provided any direct instruction (either a reading, activity, or discussion) on what constitutes “learning” - at least so we could have a shared vocabulary about basic concepts of knowledge. 

So I looked up a favorite passage from a favorite textbook (Reading Rhetorically by Bean, Chappel and Gillam)  and created a three-part activity to explore the difference between “conceptual” and “procedural” knowledges. 

In a nutshell, conceptual knowledge is the kind of learning that has to do with memorizing, i.e., fact, figures, names, dates, concepts, theories, principles, etc. Procedural has to do with manipulating and applying conceptual knowledge. Lecture and reading is the primary vehicle for conceptual knowledge, recall being the primary, or at least most apparent, function of learning. Discussion, activity, laboratory - where learning is about managing and wielding ideas - are modes of procedural knowledge.

Certainly, divvying up knowledge into two categories seems to foreclose any overlaps between the two. This division may even be reductive - big time. But I figured this relatively simple contrast between “conceptual” and “procedural” would be an easy way to discuss the thinking they've experienced as well as the kind of teaching they may expect to encounter in college. 

The first third of the lesson was an experiential activity meant to reinforce a lesson drafting a claim, a key learning objective for my class. I assigning students the task of composing a claim, compelling them to lean into their procedural knowledge. The twist? Giving instructions without using any of technical terms associated with the coming up with a working assertion: analysis, synthesis, pre-writing, brainstorming, listing, clustering, drafting, polishing. Then I did a quick lecture to tell them the names of the routines they used to compose the claim (the conceptual knowledge). Finally, I had them do a quick reciprocal teaching activity, reading and discussing the formal definitions of conceptual and procedural knowledge (page four from the third edition of Reading Rhetorically). 

Students discussed in their "exit tickets" the two types of knowledge. “Procedural knowledge is being able to practice the skills you learn . . . through human interaction,” one student wrote. “And conceptual knowledge is based on rules that need to be memorized [from] lectures based on theories.” 

 Another student put it, “procedural knowledge is when you apply your knowledge to connect those ideas and to practice them. Conceptual knowledge focuses on the lecture side of learning [where] memorization comes into play.” 

Students also recognized how the two types of knowledge overlap and reinforce each other. One used sports to describe the relationship between conceptual and procedural knowledge. “Both work together when in sports, such as water polo,” this student stated. “In water polo, there are rules you need to obey and memorize, but also you need to apply skill and talent. You show it and do it.” The word “learn” is the hinge: “learn by memorizing” and “learn by doing.” 

A second student observed that “Conceptual knowledge without procedural knowledge” removes “hands-on experiences.” One without the other limits the quality of learning.

Someone else noted that procedural knowledge helps with memory: “I don’t know how to retain information such as theories and memorizing. It’s not that I don’t want it but don’t know. I like lecture but I [need to] practice. I’m more hands on, and it’s easier for me to learn.” Again, that hinge between “learning to memorize” and “learning to do.” 

Another student wrote about another way the two knowledges reinforce each other. “[If] you only have procedural knowledge, you may end up wondering if what [you did] was actually done correctly. It would be like me blindly baking a cake, closing my eyes and hoping I added the correct ingredients in the correct proportions.” This student compares baking to thinking. Knowing the recipe and ratios of ingredients - “what’s-in-the-recipe-book”/conceptual knowledge - strengthens the practice of baking. These students recognize synergy that exists between conceptual and procedural knowledge. 

In addition to understanding the two notions, students also expressed the significance of procedural and conceptual knowledge, using this new terminology to describe their experience in school. Many noted dissatisfaction with “conceptual knowledge” style teaching. “I find boring because I am simply being told what to do,” wrote one. “For me, I prefer hands on experience that allows me to apply what I have learned.” Another student used the word “forced’ to describe the way she/he believed concepts were taught. 

Others noted a connection to Freire's notion of “banking style of education. One student wrote about how the educational system she experience focused on conceptual knowledge in a “banking perspective for students to learn,” but from this student’s experience, “more people learn and prefer to show and practice their knowledge through procedural knowledge.” This student clearly favored problem-solving mode of learning - and was able to apply the Freire's concepts to personal experience.

Another student, who also invoked Freire, noted, “I’m a banker. I receive information. I memorize it. I think that conceptual knowledge had been ingrained in me.” This response suggests that some students have become inured to being treated like “empty vessels” waiting to be filled with conceptual knowledge, believing that rote memorization is learning. The student went on to say that being inquisitive, creative problem solvers hadn’t been encouraged in school, wishing we could encourage those traits in our class. 

My “sample size” isn’t large enough to make sweeping generalizations about students. But I can draw some preliminary conclusions about this particular group of students. They get the difference between the two types knowledge They see how the two are mutually constitutive and reinforcing. They can articulate their own relationships and experiences to those concepts (the got the “conceptual knowledge” about this lesson and were able engage “procedural knowledge’ by applying those concepts to their own experience. This means we have a shared vocabulary to talk about learning. Hooray! 

As well, i enjoyed seeing students toggling back and forth between conceptual and procedural thinking - the activity composing a claim, the mini-lecture, the reading/teaching, and finally the written reflection. They practiced composing a claim and learned the names for the routines they executed (procedural to conceptual). And we moved in the opposite direction, learning theories (conceptual vs. procedural knowledge) and reflecting (applying) those theories to their experiences. Learning by doing a task, reading a passage, and listening to a lecture. 

I also walk away knowing the range of experiences students have with these two types of learning. Some favor problem-solving, feeling bored or frustrated with “banking style” of education. These students are hungry to manipulate concepts. Others, recognizing the lack of creative and critical thinking involved in memorizing information and concepts, have to work against years of experience as “empty vessels”. What was once looked upon with favor (memorizing) is no longer enough. 


Appreciating this range will help me intentionally “rock back and forth” between conceptual and procedural when I design lessons. And I can be more transparent about the type of knowledge activities employ when sharing the goal of lessons with students. 

The final question I asked on the exit card was if students had any “wishes” about the day’s activity. Responses, with the exception of one (I’ll write about that in a subsequent post - that response is definitely worth exploring), were positive. Not because the activity was “fun” or “entertaining.” Instead, students indicated they wanted to explore the topic more in depth. “I would have liked more time to read the handout [on the two types of knowledge],” said one. Another wrote that “we need more time to talk about the two types of knowledge.” 

This final response was music to my ears: “I wish I had more time to think."