Transfer and Listening

Aaron Nelson at Teacher in Development has an interesting post on Teaching and Learning: How to Increase Transfer. Referring to my post on The Transfer of Expertise, he said,

the teacher must first of all DELIVER content in meaningful ways.

To illustrate, he gave an example. One of his students had requested help on how to learn word and preposition combinations. After asking her for a few weeks how he could provide that help, he came up with the creative and engaging notion of combining photos from Flickr with Powerpoint to help students "visualize word/preposition combinations in meaningful ways." What's even more pedagogically interesting to me is that he listened carefully to his student to understand how he could best help her.

At the end of his post, Nelson asked:

How are you being relevant to your students? Would you share how you make meaningful links between your content and your student’s lives?

So, now, I'll share one example of how I listened to a student to make the content more meaningful. A few years ago, one of my students made the claim that Japanese cars were better than American cars. A few days later, I entered the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation to have the students confront contradictions between that claim and the fact that not everyone bought a Japanese car. First, however, I asked the students whether or not they agreed with the other student. They all did. Next, I asked what their criteria were for evaluating Japanese cars as better than American cars. After they had listed quite a few, I then began the following series of PowerPoint slides:

  • Cars, Criteria, and Audience
  • Which car would you prefer to own?
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • American Corvette (with accompanying picture)
  • What car would a Texan prefer to own? (with a picture of John Wayne as a dusty cowboy)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Dodge Ram pickup (with accompanying picture)
  • What would Schnarzenegger prefer to own? (with a picture of the Terminator holding a shotgun)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Harley Davidson (with accompanying picture)

This presentation, pitting a Japanese car, the Honda civic, against American products, stirred up much discussion on how audiences differed in their values and in their criteria for purchasing cars, thus causing the students to reflect on contradictions between the evaluation criteria they initially formulated and the criteria that different audiences used in purchasing vehicles, and hopefully enabling them to construct a better understanding of audience that they might be able to transfer to other contexts.

Like Nelson, as a result of listening, I had responded with a presentation and tasks that would engage my students. So, I would add that to be able to "deliver content in meaningful ways," a key component is listening carefully to our students to understand their reality.

On a sidenote, although it was likely not intended, the notion of "delivering content" can suggest a transmission model of teaching/learning. With respect to student learning, you do not "connect your content with your students' reality." Connections we make reflect our learning, not the students. Rather, we establish conditions that facilitate their connecting their reality to our "content." This shift of perspective might be perceived as trivial, but for me, it is an important one because the perspectives we give voice to shape our pedagogical practices, whether consciously or not. Learning is not to a passive process of receiving knowledge, but an active process of constructing meaning as when Nelson's students "figure[d] out" prepositions and "create[d] their own sentences."

If transfer is to occur, it will be a result of students doing the connecting. Thus, in addition to listening, another key component of effective pedagogy is a focus on the learning environment, on conditions that can facilitate learning, as in Nelson's innovation of combining Flickr and Powerpoint to create "an interesting and highly visual way to work on prepositions."

A few related posts:
If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me
Is there anything new under the sun?
Chains of experience