The Pragmatic Approach to Learning (and Why It’s Ineffective).

Brock Burnett

A huge concern within our government is how to handle public education. From No Child Left Behind to Common Core, there has been no lack of new plans, but to solve this pervasive problem, the government might need to reevaluate our entire approach to education.

If you made it past the boring title and somewhat mundane lead, I applaud you. I have to warn you, the rest of this column probably will follow suit, but boring and mundane are fairly synonymous with school in a student’s mind. Why is that? Why do students not enjoy school? I know plenty of students that actually enjoy learning things like how to build things, how to fix their car or how to paint, so why don’t they enjoy learning things in their classrooms?

Practicality. That’s the simple answer. These skills that they enjoy learning are practical and are taught in a hands-on manner. They can even have real and tangible results. A student learning to fix a motor learns by being instructed on a real motor before trying to assess the problem with theirs. Once they fix their motor, they can see and experience the result because now the motor works. It has a tangible reward, and a practical application.

Classrooms run into a problem here. Back in elementary and middle school, this kind of practical approach was useful because what we learned was applicable to everyday life. Basic math was needed constantly when making purchases or dealing with money at all. A fifth grader might want to buy a bag of gummy worms at the drugstore, but they need to be able to calculate if they have enough money. Basic education benefits from this practical, answer driven system because it’s important to be able to do these things accurately when they appear in real life.

This is not the case in high school though. The idea of having correct answers becomes less necessary as the difficulty and more theoretical the classes get. Grasping the concepts of things become much more important than being able to produce the right answers. In classes like math and science, knowing the process of how handle those kinds of problems makes more of an impact than being able to spit out the correct answer. In classes like chemistry, knowing what an atomic number is, or what a cation is should hold more importance than being able to pick out whether or not chlorine will become a cation or an anion. It isn’t likely that a student will ever be asked outside of chemistry whether or not they know if chlorine will form to be a cation. They should be rewarded for the fact that they know what makes a cation a cation, rather than being able to prove that they know specifically about one element.

This kind of learning that focuses on being able to derive a correct answer instead of being able to grasp the concept is detrimental to students’ desire to learn. It actually encourages procrastination to a certain degree. Our current pragmatic approach to learning values an end result. Students focus only on achieving that end result and lose some of the comprehension they need to be able to complete an assignment on time. Students wait until the last moment because they often don’t know how to complete an entire assignment by themselves. They then share the answers they need to complete the assignment, but they don’t often communicate how they got to that correct answer. This only makes the procrastination cycle continue further, and it gets vicious.

So, we know what one of the potential problems with education is; how do we fix it? Some teachers have actually begun to work on the solution by grading more based on proving a student’s thorough understanding of a process rather than using the process to produce a correct answer. Many teachers haven’t done this though. Many teachers don’t have to make this switch because some classes function well with the pragmatic approach to learning. When it comes to higher level math and science classes, where much of the learning is theoretical, the switch to a new system of learning might be incredibly effective in engaging students.

To those who doubt such a radical change to a learning system could be effective, one needn’t look any further than our own school. Laura Brogden, math teacher, has been using a non-traditional system of running her class room, called a “flipped classroom”. In a flipped class, students do their homework and assignments in class where the teacher is able to actively help students through any trouble they have. Brogden posts videos and notes online of what students need to learn for the next day. This approach is opposite to the typical approach of taking notes during class and doing assignments at home. This new style of teaching takes the importance off of answer driven assignments because the students can get help directly from the teacher on homework that they don’t understand. No longer are students struggling just to get a correct answer on their own. The answer becomes less important on these assignments because they are finished in class with the teacher’s help.

The result driven atmosphere that our current education system is founded on is not effective enough in some classes. The concepts being taught are too high level and theoretical for this practical answer driven approach. We need to adjust how we teach, and how we grade students for their work. Non-traditional approaches can definitely be plausible in a school setting too, as Brogden has shown. Students want to enjoy their time in school, and a new approach might just be the answer.