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Knowledge before Application, Attention before Retention: Lehman’s New Faculty Seminars

The fifth week of the spring term is chance to rediscover our footing after two Mondays of no classes and regular course schedules disrupted to provide students sufficient class time. It’s a time when we realize our uneasiness about certain classroom behaviors and homework/test responses may be patterns rather than exceptions. And yet, it’s too late to redesign the course and too early to be sure that we are or aren’t getting it right.

We brought this sense of imbalance, hope, and anxiety to this week’s new faculty seminar. It was a great time to begin sharing our teaching challenges and to examine Dan Willingham’s second and third principles: “factual knowledge must precede skill” and “memory is the residue of thought.” In other words, we need to know and be comfortable with basic facts and contexts before we can solve problems that arise from that base knowledge, AND we tend to remember those things that grab and keep our attention, willingly or unwillingly.

This week we did some on-the-spot peer teaching and learning. Faculty members split into two teams and spent 20 minutes reviewing one of our two assigned chapters. Each team then took 20 minutes to help the other team learn the key concepts and applications in their chapter. Cross-partnering community education with early and childhood education disciplinarians and languages and literature with bio-statistics specialists created stimulating conversations in both the planning and the presentations!

Anne-Marie Marshall and Emma Tsui asked us to consider the Albert Einstein statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our statistician argued in favor of this statement, emphasizing the need for experimentation that lies at the heart of science; our resident philosopher asked why one should be more privileged than the other and pointed out that knowledge is not as stable as the quote might seem to suggest.

We looked more closely at Willingham’s discussion of background knowledge and its importance for reading comprehension, reasoning, and increased memory. Glen Johnson suggested that the importance of knowing relevant vocabulary before reading within a discipline lies in the understanding that “labels open up channels of thought about information,” and he offered the example of identifying the label “sugar maple” as the name for a tree that can be tapped for syrup and has a remarkable longevity.

Following our background knowledge discussion, Beatriz Lado and Glen Johnson helped us to reflect on the selectiveness of our memories. What determines what we remember? Willingham explains that memory tends to be based on strong reactions or responses (interest and attention), repetition (music, words, and graphics, for example, in our immediate environments that persist), and meaning (we connect an idea or experience with something that matters to us). “Memory is the residue of thought” might be interpreted as “memory is what remains of what occupied our attention.”

After this quick and fascinating introduction to chapters 2 and 3 of the Willingham text, we were ready to begin sharing our teaching challenges. Each week we are planning to share a current challenge with our peers. We post a summary of the challenges and discussion on our Google Site so that we can continue providing feedback and updates for the group.

Our first challenge involved how to address student questions that came from varying levels of preparation and that had a tendency to take over class time. We spent 10 minutes asking the faculty member clarifying questions to refine our understanding of her specific concerns. The questions helped the faculty member realize which classroom issues she wanted to address in the class (time management, appropriateness of student questions, and interactions between discipline-savvy students with students possessing more professional and life experience) and which issues she felt would be better managed during office hours with specific students to provide referrals and mentoring as needed.

Next week, we explore a new teaching challenge and a discussion of the importance of context for learning. With faculty members trying to balance seminar attendance, committee meetings, and class schedules, we are managing to form a small and energetic community of teachers learning why we “don’t like school” and how we can learn to love it.

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