Cohen’s World of Education (Part 3) — Quantity Versus Quality Learning

Cohen's World of Education (Part 3) -- Quantity Versus Quality Learning

The last article explained how long-term memories are created and stored in the brain. What is more important is how we recover these memories to solve problems, become involved in creative activities and address issues. 

Creating memories is a "quantity" activity and our goal is to create as many long-term memories (of all kinds) as possible. Recovering memories, however, is even more important and I refer to this as "quality" learning. 

This is one of the most controversial and confusing concepts in education today. Many people, including educators, say they want to provide a quality education, but confuse quantity with quality. They feel the more that is taught the better the child's education. My view is the more that is taught the less quality learning takes place. The following three examples explain some of the techniques that lead to quantity and quality learning.

A child is given a multiple choice test and asked to select the correct answers. The child searches his or her memory to find the correct answer and then circles it. The pupil is expected to find a single memory — a fact that might be someone's name, a date, an addition problem, a concept or use of correct grammar. Most tests given by teachers and states (including New Jersey), and at the national level, are multiple choice tests with one right answer.

These are good tests to see if an individual possesses a collection of proper memories that form the basis of fundamental learning. The recall is a simple process, recovering only a few memories. Lecturing is the fastest way to create memories, but if the teacher covers material too quickly and with little repetition, the short-term memories are not converted to long-term memories and the learning is lost. This is primarily a quantity approach to learning.

In the second example, the pupil is given a homework assignment to write an essay. The child is expected to recall a number of items, including facts, rules about how to write an essay and the ability to present a point of view or an argument. It will take the teacher much longer to grade these essays than it would to grade a multiple choice test, but it will indicate whether the pupil is able to recall facts, rules and be creative and a critical thinker. Obviously, this form of memory recall is more complicated and tells much more about the student's ability than a multiple choice test. This represents a higher level of learning and higher quality learning.

One of the  shortcomings of this approach is that  teachers will assign a grade and move on. The learner doesn't have an opportunity to make corrections and resubmit. The rewrite is when meaningful learning takes place because the students learn from their mistakes and through repetition.

My personal experience in writing reports, proposals and research papers involves writing a draft, having it critiqued, make modifications, a further critique and then a final version. This is how the real world works, but educators must cover a wide range of curriculum and are often unable to employ a meaningful, real world approach. Grade and move on is typical.

In the third example, the class is divided into groups of five, each group representing one of the six or the original 13 American colonies. The teacher has prepared a written problem given to each group. The students are to address the problem by pretending they are in the year 1774 and are members of a colony. The group must decide how to deal with the problem, prepare a group paper, then participate in a role-playing activity with the other colonies. 

This is a problem-solving activity that, among other things, involves cooperation with others; independent work that does not directly involve the teacher; requires a variety or reading, writing, listening and speaking skills; developing empathy through role playing, and learning about how to be a leader and follower in a group. The students must recall many memories and apply them at appropriate times.

We call this activity "authentic," since it reflects how the real world works. There is no written test. Instead, the teacher observes how the   students participate with each other; how they apply decision-making skills; which students have different strengths and weaknesses, and other factors. Instead of just a grade and then moving on, the teacher can assess individual and group performance and decide whether to move on, re-teach specific skills or provide enrichment for those who do not need remediation. This approach takes more time and requires teachers to cover fewer topics and uncover meanings rather than covering many topics superficially.

There is a place in the classroom for these three approaches and many others as well. Parents can also participate by providing more opportunities for their children to create and practice recall of long-term memories. Children can learn how to conduct comparison shopping at the supermarket; develop decision-making skills by designing and preparing a nutritional lunch or dinner for the family; read the newspaper and take a position on local issues related to the environment, animal rights, politics or numerous other issues to help their parents — or volunteer in the community.

Quantity input of long-term memories and quality recall of these memories work hand-in-hand to help children become successful adults. Unfortunately, there is so much pressure on teachers to ensure that students pass standardized state and national tests, as well as covering an overly abundant curriculum, that there is little time to cover topics in a more authentic manner or in-depth. 

An emphasis on quantity learning is superficial and has no  emotional component such as empathy, which is an important element in quality learning. Ask a teacher why he or she does not cover a topic in more depth and the answer is often "There isn't enough time. My students have to pass the state exams and I need to cover the curriculum."

Joseph Cohen