A few weeks ago, I took part in a workshop about conducting discussion-based classes. The basic structure of the workshop was that we would have simulations of discussion-based classes followed by a discussion of how the class discussion went and opportunities to ask questions and share insights or strategies.
On the second day, the group I was with simulated a Spanish language class. One of the things that was stressed by our facilitator was that the learning had to be experiential. It cannot be just rote exercises on vocabulary building and verb conjugations. The students have to experience the language if they are to learn it.
In the afternoon, our class discussion was about immigration and immigrants in the United States. In our discussion on the discussion, we were asked to reflect and share which moments in our discussion we thought were wonderful, wobbly, and woolly (it’s basically the good, the bad, and the ugly). One of the things that our facilitator pointed out was the substantial number of personal anecdotes that were shared during our discussion of immigration and immigrants in the United States. She also cautioned us in keeping these to a minimum as they have the tendency to make the discussion lose its focus and lead it to numerous elsewheres.
On the way home, MM expressed her disagreement on keeping personal anecdotes to a minimum in a discussion. She argued that it is through these that students find relevance in learning. This got me thinking about what kind of role personal experience plays in our learning. Does it help us learn better, or does it keep us from learning? And since I am in the middle of recording my music, it sort of found its way on board my train of thought, and well… this happened:
The first methods of recording sound, dating as far back as the mid-1800s, were completely mechanical. A machine captured and stored sound directly. However, these methods did not provide very good quality recordings and were not very practical. In the early 1900s, advances in electronics allowed the development of and electromechanical method of sound recording. This method did not capture sound directly but it gave better results and more flexibility.
In this method, the sound energy emitted by the source is captured by the recording device. This recording apparatus then makes a representation of the sound using an electrical signal. Representing sound as an electrical signal allows us to transmit it securely without losing parts of it along the way. The information that this signal carries about the sound it represents can then be stored and/or converted back into a reproduction of that sound. This method of capturing sound is referred to as analog or analogue because the relationship between the electrical signal and the actual sound is analogous in nature.
In learning, it is pretty much common knowledge that experience is the most efficient way to learn about something. But what we sometimes take for granted is that there are things people want to learn about that they cannot experience. Maybe it’s too expensive. Maybe the technology is inaccessible or nonexistent. Maybe it will kill you. Or maybe it’s just outright impossible. But what ever the reason, some things just cannot be directly experienced.
When this hurdle in our learning appears, we go and do the next best thing. We create representations, simulations, models, dramatizations, diagrams, games; anything that will give us some sort of experience, no matter how indirect, to help us understand something better. Just like in sound recording, we can’t always directly ‘capture’ understanding. Sometimes, we have to rely on analog to do it.
Personal anecdotes that come up in class discussions are examples of such learning analogs. Considering them as tools to improve learning may sound counter-intuitive because they make us take an indirect route towards learning. However, anecdotes serve as anchors to real life for concepts that would otherwise be alien or abstract or both. Whether or not the anecdotes are something we went through ourselves or something someone we know went through, they can help us attain a better understanding of what we are learning. They can make our learning have more relevance. Just like analog recording, anecdotes afford us more flexibility and better quality.
Recording sound doesn’t mean recording just any sound and in just any way. We want to capture very specific sounds. We want to capture them as accurately as possible, and we want to capture them exclusively. The recording term for unwanted sounds is noise. And noise can very easily ruin a recording.
Analog recording technology makes use of electricity to capture and reproduce sound. However, the very systems and structures that allow audio devices to capture, store, and reproduce sound also cause the electricity flowing through them to generate sound. This sound is called electrical or mains hum, and is considered as a type of noise. This duality of electricity becomes quite problematic. We need it to capture sound, but it is also in its nature to compromise the quality of the sound that we are capturing.
Relating what we learn to our personal experiences exhibits a similar duality. Does it play an important role in learning? Yes, our experiences allow us to deepen our understanding and give relevance to our learning. But at the same time, it carries with it just as much potential to bar us from the very thing we are trying to achieve.
Even in today’s world of digital recording, noise cannot be completely removed without affecting the quality of the recorded sound. However, it is not a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ To put it more precisely, it is a case of ‘damned if you don’t, damned if you do too much.’ Getting the best sound quality is not about eliminating noise, it’s about managing it. This is one of the things audio engineers do. They design recording environments to minimize the presence of noise. They set up equipment in certain ways to minimize the noise they generate. And they use some tools that further reduce the effects of noise.
At the end of the day, we teachers are essentially engineers. We need to design effective learning environments. We need to set up equipment properly to increase their efficiency. We need to use the appropriate tools in appropriate ways at appropriate times. All this to harness and maximize the productivity of the different ways our students learn, and to minimize their inherent capacities to hinder learning.
Analog as analog to experiences as analog to concepts. It sounds unnecessarily complicated, but sometimes the disparate allow us to make connections. Sometimes we need to stray a little to get to where we want to go. And sometimes blurring boundaries provides us with clarity.