The Value of an Idea
Good ideas and information mean a great deal to us. Often the value of an idea is not truly appreciated in terms of the time, effort, and/or money that it saves or makes for us. Certainly a good stock tip acted upon at the right time might turn us a tidy sum, and we would easily recognize the dollar value of such information. On the other hand, most situations are not so black and white.
Let's look at a subscription price for a magazine. Personally, I take a variety of magazines in various fields of interest. Computer magazines tend to be expensive while gardening or health magazines are less so. My purpose in subscribing is two fold. One, I just enjoy reading about what is going on and keeping up with what is new. Two, I look for ideas which will either improve my quality of life, make or save me money, or allow me to do something a new and better way.
Many times by reading the advertisements carefully, I have been able to save money on the purchase of some item. The savings normally amount to more than the subscription price of the magazine. Other times I learn of new products or ways of doing things that are better, more efficient, less time consuming, less costly, or even easier than what I am used to. Such ideas, when properly implemented, are useful and become a part of my life. Well, what has that to do with teaching and learning? Let's find out!
A good idea should be simple, easily explained, and have practical application. In essence, the idea should be usable without undue stress. In teaching, this means that I as a teacher should be able to grasp the idea and put it into practice without a long learning curve. It should fit into my regular routine without disrupting much else, and it should afford me a better way of doing things than I am doing now. That translates into both making my job easier and my students learning more.
The best ideas are processes or vehicles by which processes can be mastered by the students. All of what is taught can be roughly divided into three categories: facts, skills, and concepts. A skill is the ability to do something, a learned process for handling a given situation. John Saxon said it nicely when he mentioned that teachers really don't know the math any better than their students, but they have mastered certain defense mechanisms that allow them to handle the mathematical problems which they face. The ability to see what kind of problem it is and fit it into a preset formula or procedure that generates the proper solution is what we are talking about.
Interestingly enough, this methodology is not limited to math. Think about it for a moment. Phonics is a good example. We see a series of letters arranged in some fashion. We automatically bring into play our reading skills. If the word is new to us, like xenophobia or soteriology, we may have to be a bit more thoughtful in applying the procedure, but nonetheless we have a method for reading such words. Figuring out the meaning of the word is another process, and it may be as simple as looking it up in the dictionary.
The point is that there are many repetitive tasks in teaching and learning that can be identified and mastered once the procedure is laid out. Neither we nor our students should be required to reinvent the wheel each time we come to a new task. New tasks fall into one of two situations. Is the new task simply new material to which a previously mastered process can be applied, or does the task require mastery of some new process in order to complete it? That should be our first question.
Learning almost always involves a specific case or example. From the specifics we can identify a general principle which we can then hopefully apply to new material that is similar to the original example.
For illustration, remember in the last newsletter I discussed a method for writing a short paragraph about a verse in Scripture. The method was laid out, and a specific example was given using Psalm 119:11. The point is that the method could be applied to any verse in the Bible. I developed the method and used it over and over again. My students would know exactly what to do with a verse no matter what verse was assigned to write on. My job as a teacher was made easier in that I decided what new verse they would write about, but I did not have to constantly teach them what to do. The students learned a routine method of exegesis that they could apply to any verse at any time, not only for me but for any situation where they might want or need to figure out what a given verse might be saying.
Spaced repetition is the key to learning. The students did one verse a day for a couple of weeks and then two or three verses per week for a couple of months. Each verse was done in the same way. Each verse was new, so the material constantly changed. The procedure was always the same, so the method was constantly practiced. Over time, the students mastered the method and could effectively apply it to any verse with varying degrees of efficiency and success.
We then moved on to writing about a chapter instead of just a verse. This was a new task but somewhat related to the previous one. Another method or procedure was taught and implemented. It really was an adaptation of the verse method but altered to suit the more lengthy chapters.
The plusses for me as a teacher were that the students learned how to express themselves about Scripture, be it a verse or a chapter. I taught two procedures and then concentrated on finding different material for each application of the lesson instead of having to constantly come up with new instructions each time. We both benefited from the experience.
All fine and dandy for me, but how does my experience benefit you? First, you have already seen that adopting some kind of general format or plan and adapting it to a series of lessons or exercises would save you time and effort as well as help your students learn certain procedures by spaced repetition. Second, many of my ideas have been incorporated into my books. I think of Jensen's Format Writing where you will find ideas on book reports and resumes. Finally, I have written a few special reports that outline some of these procedures for you. 1) how to set up, administer, and evaluate a long term project, 2) a series of methods and outlines for historical fiction, biography, and regular fiction book reports, and 3) how to design factual questions in a variety of ways so that students are confined to legitimate answers and so that the tests may be easily scored, 4) a procedure that uses tic-tac-toe to teach how to solve percentage problems, and 5) one that deals with writing paragraphs from Scripture, both verses and chapters. If you are interested, you can email me about these reports.
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