Sunday, September 20, 2015

Just in Time Learning

The experience that most prepared me for teaching wasn't teacher's college, it was working in a huge insurance company. They trained me to work efficiently and stay working until the job's finished, which, in an insurance company, means forever. It's a very useful skill when I'm marking.

There are a few efficiency slogans that come to mind when I've got a pile of work, like "Only touch it once." No sorting and separating and wasting time preparing to work. As soon as you open a file or essay, don't put it down until you're done with it. The goal is to get it off your desk as quickly as possible! That little reminder at the back of my head has done wonders for getting work back to students in a timely fashion.

But the one that came to mind recently is "Just in Time." Don't prepare work too far ahead in case the situation changes and you've just done all that work for nothing. It seems like it could be counter to getting things done, but it's not. It means don't order a ton of supplies for a situation that might never come to pass, or don't prepare questions for an all-candidates debate until all the candidates are confirmed and the debate set to go - even if they keep e-mailing for that list of questions.

I was thinking about "Just in Time" in the context of learning, though. Members of OSSTF recently ratified our contract. As staff president, I had to get everyone out to vote last Thursday. I sent a few messages to everyone's home e-mail near the start of September and to their school e-mail more recently, but still, on Thursday, people asked, "What vote?" as I went room to room personally inviting them to mark an "X".

I was lamenting this to a colleague, when we started complaining that it was also picture day, and we didn't have any instructions about what order students go down for their photos. Before calling the office, I wisely re-checked my e-mails and found some very clear instructions sent two days previous. I had read the e-mail, but it had completely left my brain. It seems that information has to come the second you need it and not before or else it dissolves. The brain sorts out whether or not something's immediately useful, and dumps it if it's found wanting. Especially now when we have so much information coming our way.

And later I asked about a book in the library, and my librarian told me I could look it up from my own computer. Who knew?! Then I recalled many little lessons at staff meetings about the library website that I had watched with eyes glazed over. That information had nowhere to sit and wait to feel needed, so it just wandered away. I needed to hear it AS I was looking for a book. But isn't it a bit much to ask someone to teach each of us a lesson individually - 80 times over - only as we actually need that knowledge? Well, it would certainly be inefficient. But maybe sometimes efficiency's overrate.

And, of course, I think about all the information I give my students about things that aren't quite due or aren't necessary to be used immediately. I don't mean real-world applications - I haven't used calculus since high-school, yet I maintain, in that sense, that all learning - the learning process in itself - is useful. I mean teaching them how to do close reading or cite a source, but not soon after testing them on that skill in some way - not making them use the skill in a way that I can verify they understand it.  They'll need it generally, as we go, but then do those concepts hide in their brains, atrophying as they grow weary waiting for opportunities to show themselves?

This isn't new information at all, yet every time I tell the staff of educated adults about something happening, and I put it in writing, then I tell them individually, and so many still don't quite remember what I'm on about, I'm baffled. It's because I'm still not done learning about learning! I forget how difficult it is to store information until it's needed.

But those insurance efficiency slogans sure stuck in there. It's because my boss actually said them over and over. If we appeared overwhelmed with stacks of files, he'd remind us, "Once begun, half done." Here's the thing: It was not beyond the expectations of his job description to remind us over and over to keep those files flying off our desks. We despised him for it, but we worked like machines!

I'm not interested in getting kids to be more efficient - although it can be handy in certain fields. But I am interested in the stickiness of slogans repeated and applied over and over. Years later, they creep up unannounced to keep me going on that pile of essays. And I'm grateful. And I have to work to remember (because it wasn't part of the training regime) that it has to be an expectation that I'll repeat things over and over to educated adults and students alike and not expect them to remember it until they've actually used the information many times.

Teaching is a funny job where, like in insurance, it feels never-ending. Through a wide lens over the decades, people learn a bit during the 5-month semester, then we start fresh, without any of that knowledge I just taught. I repeat the same content in a variety of ways over and over and over again, and even though many go off to university to continue learning, it can feel like I haven't really taught anything because it starts all over again the next term, brand new, with a collection of people, and some of them think Obama is our Prime Minister.  And years after high-school, some others - coughmyownkidscough - don't remember learning, from me, how elections work. It was way back in grade 10, and they didn't need to understand any of that until now. We teach them that way before they'll use the information, and we don't go over it throughout the rest of high-school.

So I taught them all over again.

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