Quality over quantity

When I first started teaching at college, students were overloaded with lecture notes and handouts. The contents for a semester-long course took the space of the whole D-ring file, which is at least five inches thick. Students had to submit at least eight reading reports, along with fulfilling other short and long-term projects, daily quizzes, unit tests, mid-semester and final examinations. Looking back, I wonder how students endured such a hardship. I am pretty sure that they perceived me as an insensitive professor whose goal was to show off his knowledge. How much of what I taught made sense remains a mystery.

How much is enough?

Completing a textbook that contains hundreds of concepts, some entirely new and some re-visited for the second or third time within a specified time frame is a challenging task. Teachers, in their attempts to complete syllabus rush through the standards-based contents touching only the surface, and sometimes not even that. Students, in their attempts to score well in tests memorize as much as possible to regurgitate when the time comes. To make things worse, textbooks come with additional resources, worksheets, and guide notes that supposedly enhance understanding of the subject. But when taken together, they eat up learners’ cognitive capacities.

Once I was approached by an English teacher who asked for assistance in teaching vocabulary to second language learners. When inquired how many new words she teaches her kids during a lesson, she gave a figure that shocked me. On average, she teaches twenty to thirty new words per lesson. She tells and students follow, memorize, and reproduce by applying these new words in sentences.

This English teacher didn’t just steal kids of their learning opportunities but also encountered a lot of classroom management related difficulties. Practically speaking vocabulary isn’t something teachers need to teach in isolation to other subjects or life experiences. Secondly, vocabulary can be learned effectively only when new words are perceived as useful and actually applied in the right context.

Before parting ways, I recommended that the teacher teaches only two or three new words per lesson. I also encouraged her to do a variety of things to learn the few new words – act them out, write and sing a song out of them, draw pictures to represent them, connect them to students’ native tongue and allow them to express the same, etc.

Just-in-case learning

There is a reason why the traditional school system advocated quantity over quality. In the factory model of schooling, people were given as much knowledge as possible so that when a need arises they would qualify with entry-level education to undertake a particular job. As long as one had the pre-requisites necessary for a job, he or she was okay. Curriculum developers arbitrarily decided upon which subjects and corresponding contents were important. The decision was almost solely based on the job market and what was needed in industries.

This system required that children learned everything so that by the time they go to college or university, they could specialize in one or two subjects. Even at tertiary level students are required to learn everything just-in-case some of the things learned could be used at work. The greatest weakness of the just-in-case learning approach is its detachment from practice. People learn theory so that they could apply it when needed. Individuals never knew for sure if they would ever apply a particular knowledge. In other words, they took chances – making education a socially acceptable gambling?

Just-in-time learning

On the contrary, new forms of schooling do not give importance to quantity. Rather, they focus on ensuring that whatever little is learned, it is learned well through qualitative extension and application of knowledge.

Since knowledge is freely available, easily accessed, and thoughtfully created and re-created, anyone and everyone can learn about something new provided that he or she has the right tools, which are not difficult to find or own. An individual who does not know anything or much about, let’s say “cloning” could do a full-fledged presentation on it if allowed time and appropriate information technological tools and facilities.

All of a sudden, teachers and students do not have to rely on curriculum developers to specify what knowledge is important to learn. They can collaboratively decide upon what contents could and should be learned together. They can also set their own pace for how much knowledge is to be absorbed and utilized. They can be selective of many teaching and learning variables that affect education significantly.

Children become inspired to learn when schools provide just-in-time learning experiences, where children learn only when they want to learn – a purposeful and meaningful learning indeed.

Quantity overloads, exhausts, and diffuses meaning in learning. Quality on the other hand relaxes, increases understanding, and innovates.

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