Sunday, October 23, 2011

Making Connections

Most curriculums, courses, and books are organized in a manner that resembles house construction. You lay the foundation and then add to that foundation as the material gets progressively more complex. The idea is to present the information in an orderly manner so that complex concepts can be understood. I believe that teachers have been using this general scheme for centuries. I also believe teachers have been frustrated for centuries when they discover that the reason the students don’t understand a higher level concept is that they really don’t make the transition from one conceptual level to another. The problem is that learning is really not too much like stacking bricks, but more like wiring circuits. We have to make connections to learn. It is not enough to present material in an orderly and logical fashion, we must also make connections between different pieces of information. Every chance you get, you need to show how one piece of information connects to another. The more mental connections the students make, the more likely they are to remember the information. Students sometimes ask how a particular piece of information is relevant. I believe what they are trying to say is that they don’t have anything to tie the information to. Random, disconnected facts are quite difficult to remember, and are not normally particularly useful. I like the Bing commercials where people blurt out a series of largely unrelated facts that are essentially useless because there is no logical connection between them. To students, I am sure our lectures can sometimes sound like one of these commercials. I try to connect ideas together – showing how one part of a system affects the others, how pressure is related to temperature, how resistance is related to current – you get the picture. Relationships and connections between ideas are just as important as a carefully crafted sequence of information. This is not to suggest that building a foundation of information is wrong, I would just use the analogy of a framework instead. A framework can allow connections in more than one direction. Understanding a few fundamental physics concepts provides a framework for understanding both refrigeration and electricity. Taken by itself, physics can be pretty dry stuff until you realize that it describes the world around us. Once the students start making connections linking concepts together the whole process can go viral – they start finding their own connections and asking their own questions. This can be a bit scary because you no longer have total control of the flow of information or questions, but it produces an energized, lively class. More importantly, when the students start connecting concepts they are taking an active role in their learning and are far more likely to retain the information.

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