Jun 6, 2010

making the tacit explicit

When assessing a student's learning, a teacher has to overcome at least two epistemic barriers.

The first is obvious: as teacher, I have to find out what my students have learned. So I assess their knowledge. This is, of course, fraught with pitfalls. Am I asking the right questions? In the right words? Have I provided enough context? Too much?

But then there's the second barrier: students who don't know what they've learned--or haven't learned. Or, even if they know they know it, they can't articulate it.

Though it's what I'm always thinking about, the problem became acute this week in a couple of my reading classes. As a way to provide some context for this article on skills students should "really" have upon graduating high school--which, I will say, led to some fascinating discussions about the value we place on various aspects of education--I asked my students, mostly 9th and 10th graders, what they had learned this year. (In a similar exercise earlier in the year, I asked them to list 100 things they already know. Those were some interesting lists.)

By far, the initial response was an overwhelming "I haven't learned anything."

Several reasons.

The first: general resistance to doing work. This was overcome fairly quickly with a couple leading questions. "What did you learn in this class? In your math class? From your friends? About yourself? Start by making categories on your paper...."

The second: genuine non-learning from students who are uninvolved in the classroom, whether through their own choices, uncontrollable circumstances, poor teaching, or any combination of the above. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which is most salient.)

The third: genuine inability to articulate what they've learned.

How to overcome this? Metacognition, reflectiveness, self-awareness--whatever you want to call it--can be taught. The key is (at least) twofold. First, making your tacit objectives explicit. Sharing goals and objectives at the start of every lesson. Teaching explicit strategies for comprehension, discussion, cooperation, and more, rather than presuming that students already know the best way.

Second, having students make their tacit knowledge explicit. Asking them to articulate the purpose for today's activities before you even start, to jot down something they've learned at the end of the lesson, to critique the lesson's structure and effectiveness.

Even after eight years of teaching, it's amazing to me how many times I have to revisit this, to dredge up my own tacit knowledge and drag it to the surface.

You know a lot more than you think you know. (And, of course, you also know a lot less.)

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