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Deeper Learning Through Inquiry and Story – or – Why Textbooks Don’t Work

Woman sleeping on her booksWe’ve all experienced the frustration of studying hard, getting good grades and quickly forgetting everything we read about in our textbooks. It makes formal education feel like a giant waste of time and money, and it’s easy to turn away from books and learning altogether.

Instead of giving up on learning through the written word, let’s take a look at what’s wrong with textbooks and how we can get a better education without them (or if we must use them, by supplementing them).

In Kato Lomb’s book Polyglot: How I Learn Langauges, she discusses the work of Pavlov and how we can use his findings to devise a study method. She says:

I would only like to refer to Pavlov’s principle in a primitive form: if two areas of the brain react at the same time, the effect is effect is always more lasting. In language learning, the intellectual sphere can interact with the emotional one.

I can’t agree with her more, but I can ask that we not stop there. How we can evoke emotions while we study other subjects, too.

The way Lomb suggests evoking emotion in language learning is through personal discovery. Instead of cramming facts and definitions provided by a textbook and dictionary, she recommends reading novels and short stories and attempting to intuit definitions and work them out from context. The joy of figuring the meaning out on your own and of finding answers to your own questions as they arise will work as a memory aid.

This inquiry-based method of learning can be applied to other areas of study, too.

The first area that comes to mind is usually science. Because we picture scientists asking questions and finding the answers themselves using the scientific method, it is natural to consider modeling this behavior in our own search for answers about our world.

Unfortunately, this is often limited to the classroom. It is a way to teach two things at once: how to use the scientific method to find answers, and the finding itself. We forget the joy of finding the answer on our own and how it enhances our learning and don’t take these methods out of the classroom with us.

But we can, and it doesn’t have to end with science. In A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form, Keith Devlin explains how the current method of mathematics education in the U.S. treats math like a set of facts for rote memorization and never teaches children what mathematicians really do: explore numbers by asking questions about them and finding the answers.

Devlin encourages us to become hobby mathematicians on our own, starting with any simple questions about numbers, such as Why do primes sometimes come in twos? Do they come in threes?, and seeing where our exploration naturally takes us.

But what about subjects like history, which don’t lend themselves well to hands-on learning. Many of us simply can’t work an archaeological dig into our schedule this year. So for something like history, we can turn to the power of story.

Let’s take one of the most emotional days in history, August 6, 1945. That’s right – D-Day. How is it described in a typical textbook? We have an example at UShistory.org.

For Truman, the choice whether or not to use the atomic bomb was the most difficult decision of his life.

First, an Allied demand for an immediate unconditional surrender was made to the leadership in Japan. Although the demand stated that refusal would result in total destruction, no mention of any new weapons of mass destruction was made.

Having trouble paying attention? When information is given in this format, I have to force myself to attend to each word – making reading tedious and slow.

Now let’s look at some lines from John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

HiroshimaAt exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.

Gasp. Horrified awe. Turn the page.

One reason for the stark contrast between the two texts – both nonfiction – is that this is a simple case of showing and not telling. Hersey’s narrative style gives us details that draw us into the story. But there’s more.

Hersey’s story is about people, not just numbers. Sure, numbers are mentioned, but they’re not the focus. Instead of telling me the decision to drop the bomb was the most difficult decision of Truman’s life, give me excerpts of journal entries and conversations, give me the story of what making such a tough decision was like for Truman.

Allow me to connect to the man on a personal and emotional level.

And this is part of why it’s great to by an autodidact. When you’re curious about a subject, you can seek out books that will take you back to the time and place of an event and show you what it was really like. You can pose questions that really intrigue you, and find the answers yourself through experimentation and logic. You can find materials that will help you really learn, not just temporarily memorize.

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