Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tale of Two Teachers (Part I)

In this exhibit, Brian Cambourne relates two very different stories about his own learning. (These can be found in the paper, The Teaching-Learning-Language Connection: How Learning In the Real World and Learning In the Content Areas Are Related.) This is a brain-on exhibit that asks you to identify conditions that support and inhibit learning.

The first story describes how Cambourne learned to iron.
Firstly there surfaced a need (reason, purpose, motive, desire, intent, commitment) for me to learn how to iron at that particular time in my life. I realised that I had to become a member of the ironers' club.

Secondly when I became conscious of this need I decided to seek help. Usually in situations like this I look for a book or some printed materials that I know will inform me of what I need to know. However this time I found this strategy to be inappropriate. I decided that I needed the opportunity to observe someone who had more expertise than myself. I sought a demonstration. I arranged for a friend to give me a lesson next time she was ironing. We started with a shirt. I stood nearby and observed what she did. She talked as she demonstrated. She explained how she did the sleeves first, then flipped the shirt over, did the front, then flipped it over and did the back, and then the collar. She then told me how she liked to put the area near the shoulder and neck over the rounded end of the ironing board and iron the section where the sleeve joined the the neck and shoulder, She showed me how she did this and flipped it over and did the other sleeve-shoulder area. Then she hung it on a hanger. She explained how to fold shirts in a certain way for travelling purposes. As I reflect on the experience I also realise that she used language in such a way that I could get the general meaning of what she was intending. This meaning was further enhanced by the fact that the demonstrations and the explanations were given simultaneously. She didn't just tell me what to do. She used phrases like, 'I find it easiest to start with the sleeves' and so on. I realise now that we began to share a set of meanings and ways of using words and phrases to represent them. She then demonstrated and explained how to do a pair of slacks. Again I observed, and mentally rehearsed myself doing it.

Then I tried to apply what I'd been observing. I began with a shirt. I tried to flip it onto the ironing board the way my teacher had. It didn't seem to fall into place the way it did for her. Then I tried to position the sleeve so that I could begin to iron it. When I moved my left hand to flatten out the sleeve and align the seams symmetrically it fell off the ironing board and on to the floor. When this happened my teacher said something like, 'That happens to me sometimes too. Here let me show you again and this time I'll try to explain why I'm doing what I'm doing as I do it, and you ask questions when you don't understand. O.K.?'

My learning from that point was rapid. I had about four more joint sessions like this one. My teacher demonstrated and talked out loud, explaining what needed to be done and why. I found myself attending to and engaging with things I hadn't been aware of before, such as the way one can use the seams in garments to achieve symmetry, or the different functions that the sharp and blunt ends of the iron serve. I asked many questions about why she did what she did. After these initial joint sessions during which I received authentic feedback and praise, I began to practise by myself.

Whilst visiting another friend's house I asked her to show me how she goes about ironing. I found myself observing how she did it and engaged her in a conversation about what she was doing. It was then that I discovered something that I'd never been aware of before, namely that the function of the left hand, the way it held and moved the garment for the iron was absolutely crucial for the whole enterprise. I concluded that the key to effective ironing was the left hand, not the hand which held the iron.

Feeling quite the expert now I decided one morning to impress my daughter. I nonchalantly ironed her school shirt for her. She was obviously impressed. I felt I'd become a member of the ironing club. I was an expert.

Before we go to the second story, make your thinking visible and record what conditions supported Cambourne's efforts to become an expert ironer.

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