Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scripted Learning

Looking around the edublogosphere, it seems that many other edubloggers have their own catch phrase they use to build the rest of their blog around. Dan Meyer has his "pseudocontext," while Chris Ludwig has his "skills-based grading." I've actually had my own phrase in my head for the past week; I simply haven't had the initiative (or time or energy!) to type up a post about it.

Here it is: scripted learning. I admit it may not be an entirely original phrase (as a minute of Googling proves) but I came up with it myself, so I'll keep using it.

What is scripted learning?

At the risk of sounding too much like Jonathan Burk and Frank Noschese and their "pseudoteaching," I think there are two main signs of scripted learning:

1. The student is drilled in how to do something, with no real understanding of why this works or how to apply these ideas to other situations.

2. The student is then only willing to accept this method of solving a problem, because "that's how the teacher said to do it."

My sister was recently telling me about her preparations for the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) and she mentioned that she would "get in a lot of trouble" if she did not read through the questions first, underline certain passages and do everything "exactly the way [the teacher] said." 

Sound a little scripted to you?

Now, I recognize the fact that these are test-taking skills, not actual everyday instruction, but aren't scenes like this everyday occurrences in many classrooms? I'd be willing to bet that I am the only person in our school who has actually examined the proof of the quadratic formula. Even though it's right there in the textbook, a few pages away from the homework problems, curiosity has been squashed by this process of "do it this way. Don't ask why or how it works. Simply accept it."

Of course, no one would ever come out and say that. I don't think that's the intent, but often, that becomes the effect.  

Then, of course,  there's the second main warning sign of scripted learning: the assumed infallability (or maximum efficiency) of the given method of solving a problem. Time and time again, I will be working with a peer, and they will choose an elementary, clumsy, and roundabout way of solving a given problem. When I try to explain a more streamlined solution, I'm often met with, "But that's how (insert teacher name here) said to do it."

This, to me, simply demonstrates a lack of understanding to the deeper methods at work here. In the case of the quadratic formula, if you're going to derive it by completing the square on the general equation, you have to really understand the method of completing the square and why it works--otherwise, how can you solve an equation without any numbers in it?

Of course, I'm being undeservedly hard on teachers here. Students share just as much of the blame--after all, we're the ones who accept this. I have yet to meet a teacher who, when I began the "Why?" series, would not give me a valid solution.

But perhaps there is a better way. I'm here to offer my plea for bright students everywhere. I've often been asked by our district's GT advisor if I feel "challenged." Really, there's no reason why I shouldn't. I'm a sophomore in a plethora of senior/advanced junior classes. 

However, I think that the meaning of "challenged" is interesting here. If you want it to mean simply doing harder things--harder math problems, deeper essays, and more esoteric sciences--then of course I feel "challenged." But I like to think that there's a kind of "challenged" beyond that--beyond scripted learning, where the student has to really understand everything in order to simply survive. My biology class this year is a perfect example of this--it's the first class where I can say that I've really had to work so that I don't sink.

Why? It's because I don't have a teacher who tries to hold my hand and show me what they think I should know. Instead, I have a teacher who's willing to let me go where I want to. The poor guy may have students feel like they're teaching themselves, but hey...he's taught me more than I've learned in most other classes combined.

Now that's not scripted. 


  1. Hello Michael....

    Your words strike a chord with me....being a teacher who does not subscribe to 'scripted' teaching your blog has some very valid and amazing points.

    What makes me wonder most is your last paragraph, where you not that students feel like they are teaching themselves...at some point they will realize that the students are becoming something, but are used to a script. There is nothing wrong with improv. Do something different.

    It sounds like you have an amazing teacher..he shared with me your blog...your words speak volumes about you and your teacher.

    Well said...

  2. Michael,
    I think science and math are particularly prone to "scripted learning." Students accept it because it is easier, teachers accept it because it is easier. It is good to hear that you are having a better experience in your biology class.

  3. Hi Michael,

    This is a great post, and very enlightening to have a student's perspective. In fact, I think that's the perspective that too often gets overlooked.

    Which brings me to my question: Would you be willing to write a guest post for John's and my pseudoteaching series? We would love to have a student's voice!

    Frank Noschese

  4. Hi Frank,

    I would be happy to write a guest post. I will start working on this.

    Thank you!

    Michael A. Rees

  5. Hi Frank,

    I would be happy to write a guest post. I will start working on this.

    Thank you!

    Michael A. Rees

  6. Hi Michael,
    I came across this post and got very curious about your biology teacher. I'm also one and would like to know why you feel your class is so much more challenging than others. If you could share some info with me whenever you find some time I would really appreciate (and maybe your teacher's email? blog? class site?). I really love getting ideas to improve my bio classes and nothing better than talking to such a critical student like you or even a teacher like yours.
    Fernanda Silva


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