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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Steps or The Big Picture? How we approach teaching and learning

Did you ever notice this sentence at the end of any list of directions from Google Maps?

"These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly."

I have relied on Google Maps for years to help me plan my travel. The steps are invaluable. I love that short disclaimer at the end, though, because it reminds me that steps alone are not enough in the real world.

Besides real life throwing us an unexpected obstacle, another problem with steps is that if you get off track for any reason it can be really hard to find where you're going.

When traveling somewhere for the first time, nothing beats looking at the map first and getting the route and the area in your head. Even a GPS, while it is so helpful when turned around in busy traffic, is a short sighted aid that will only take you to your final destination. A map, studied and remembered, offers a few advantages.

First, connections between other close destinations can be made. Looking at the map, we can see the cities passed on the trip and roads that remind us of other places we know or might want to visit. This aids in planning future travel or maybe opens the door for someplace fun to check out on the way home.

When lost in an unfamiliar area, a map in the mind compared to having a list of steps makes it so much more likely we can still get where we want to go. Having a mental picture of our general position relative to our destination, and knowing most of the roads are going north, south, east or west, is usually enough to get us where we need to be. It's not magic that makes some people better than others at finding their way in unfamiliar areas.

And lastly, I'd argue that having that mental map makes the whole trip easier to remember. Each site I pass that I might want to return to at another time can be effortlessly stored away in the already existing picture in my mind. I might forget it was between the first and second light on the short road going south, but at least I know the general area. 

In short, not having to think of every step makes it easier to pay attention. Everything I pass along the way, whether I need it right away when turned around or years later when thinking of another trip, a mental map helps organize it.

I trust it's clear this isn't about how to plan trips. The parallels to teaching and learning are obvious. The steps to a process are important, but I'd argue that every time steps are not enough if we want the learner to do something with the learning.

Steps get you from point A to point B if you can remember them or have them available whenever you need them.  They are effective as long as nothing changes in between. They do not require deep thought from the person relying on them.

In a constantly changing world, we need to give our students a big picture. With it they can form new connections and use the learning in new ways, taking them to places they have never been before.

Here are some related thoughts:

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