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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Exposure versus Mastery

1. You take your kids to the Science Center and show them an exhibit on the human body. They get to travel through a huge simulated digestive tract, and they see a wide range of colorful posters about the human body. They then watch a cool I-Max video about how the body works. They come out of the Science Center full of questions about the human body and brimming with excitement.

2. A child sits at a desk, deliberately and systematically studying how different systems in the body work. She fills out worksheets on the human body, studies diagrams, names parts, and memorizes a wide range of facts. The next day, she is tested at school on the information, and then again at the end of term, she restudies all the information for an exam.

A proponent of progressive education would instantly say that the first scenario is an example of good teaching/learning but the second is not. In the first scenario, kids are experiencing hands-on learning and they're getting excited about the topic. What they're getting is broad exposure to the topic.

However, a proponent of Asian-style traditional education would say that the second scenario is also a good example of teaching/learning because it is forcing a child to actually learn information with a goal towards mastery. In this case, kids will actually remember the information; it's not necessarily as fun, but it is as essential as the learning that occurs in the first scenario.

I would say that kids need both: they need broad, hands-on exposure to get them excited about learning, but they also need deliberate mastery-oriented study to ensure that the information they learn registers in their long-term memory.  The first scenario involves incidental learning resulting from exposure -- kids will pick up lots  of information, make connections to other things they know, and develop a desire to learn more about the topic. The second scenario involves deliberate studying with the goal of mastery -- kids will consolidate learning, they will learn key bits of information in a structured sequence, and they will remember it because of repeated study. The more I compare and contrast Eastern and Western approaches to education, the more I see that they differ because of their desire to either provide exciting exposure or offer mastery-oriented studying opportunities. The best option, I think, is to give kids both.

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