A Reminder: What Your Students Do Is Hard

The most important thing I do as an edtecher is try to teach myself things outside my comfort zone. When you get into your thirties and forties (assuming you’re out of your PhD program) you get pretty ensconced in a discipline, and are able to leverage previous knowledge to acquire new related knowledge. This is a very different process from what novices go through, and it can warp your vision of what education should look like.

So this weekend I decided I wanted to take a few hours to understand cell division. So I got me a textbook, and here is a relatively random paragraph from the cell division chapter:

The key to progress past the restriction point is a protein called RB (retinoblastoma protein, named for a childhood cancer in which it was first discovered). RB normally inhibits the cell cycle. But when RB is phosphorylated by a protein kinase, it becomes inactive and no longer blocks the restriction point, and the cell progresses past G1 into S phase (Note the double negative here—a cell function happens because an inhibitor is inhibited! This phenomenon is rather common in the control of cellular metabolism.) The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

This is an introductory textbook for a college class. If you are a biologist, that paragraph probably looks like this one does to edtech folks:

According to Anderson and Dron (2011), during this time, theories of learning have shifted from ‘cognitive-behaviourist’ to ‘social constructivist’ to ‘connectivist’ pedagogical models. A cognitive-behaviourist model sees learning as something that is ‘acquired’ through a sequence of linear stages leading to a predefined goal, with periodic reinforcement of learned constructs, knowledge and behaviour. Social constructivist models view learning that is directly affected by the student’s social environment, context and relationships (Greenhow et al, 2009). Students do not merely passively consume knowledge in an isolated manner; instead, students actively create and integrate this new knowledge with their existing knowledge.

And vice-versa for the biologist I suppose (though honestly the biologist would probably have an easier time).  We start to think that learning feels like it does in our discipline, when really it feels like reading a sentence like:

The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

What are some mistakes we make based on this? The biggest one is we underestimate how important it is to know facts. You can’t read this sentence above because you didn’t read (or pay attention while reading) the earlier chapters, which talked about cyclins and phosphorylates.  And this issue — bootstrapping knowledge — is one of the pressing reasons why we need textbooks, references, and sequenced material.

When people say ludicrous things like “we don’t need to remember things any more because we have Google!” you can assume they haven’t tried to learn anything outside their domain for a long time.

The other thing this reminds me of is what I discussed yesterday — you need a frame of reference for this to be anything but goobledygook. But the problem with students (as opposed to experts) is they don’t really have a library of framing contexts to make this meaningful. This is one of the reasons why projects or thematic threads can really help comprehension. Again, using my interest in cancer, we look at a line like

The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

And think huh, so does cancer involve increased Cdk4 and Cdk2? The thing about that question is maybe it does, and maybe they doesn’t, but the process of formulating that question and answering it gives me a frame in which the knowledge becomes sticky, and in which I’m pushed towards a deeper understanding.

In any case, this is really meant to encourage people who study learning to keep pushing yourself out of comfort zones. It’s only be remembering what it is like to struggle that you are going to be able to build environments that address that struggle.

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5 thoughts on “A Reminder: What Your Students Do Is Hard

  1. Thanks for making this point. I often wonder what it was like for me 20 years ago when I started learning to program a computer. Fact is I barely remember. Now when I teach I’ve to force myself to slow down sometimes and go thru the little obvious bits.

    The idea that we can easily look things up misses the point of context sometimes and yes it plays down the amount of time we need to go off every time to look up something.

    Nowadays I find myself reading sociology and philosophy for the first time in my life. Let me tell you Google helps but only a little because this stuff is beyond ” what’s the capital of France “.

    • That’s so great. I do feel this is the way — we can never recover what it was like to be a novice in our own discipline, but we can push ourselves in others. I think it makes us smarter, but also more empathetic.

      • Mike I never thought about reading new areas in this way before. I’m going to share this thought with my colleagues.

  2. S’why I blog… and try to learn something new, even if it is in my own supposed domain/discipline every day. (Blog post often takes longer than the thing blogged because it forces me to sequence activity and try to pull – and generalise – the thing I actually learned… Which often requires contriving a learning / blogging example.)

  3. Pingback: From the Inbox – Latin, Classics, and Education in the 21st Century

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