First Published in Dutch on the 11the of november 2013
A scouting expedition
Imagine that you are taking part in a scouting expedition. A parkour has been mapped out through the forest in which hundreds of pieces of clothing are spread out. The goal is to collect as many different items as possible. A participant carries a large backpack and runs across the paths as much as possible. Every piece of clothing he finds is thrown in the backpack. At the end of the parkour, he arrives at the game leader. The leader wants to evaluate how well he has played the game. The enthusiastic player wants to empty his backpack on the ground, but the game leader stops him; if everyone would do this, it would become a mess. The game leader wants to conduct a representative survey by asking oriented questions. His first question: “Do you have a red sock for me?”. The participant looks in his backpack in search for the sock. After a few minutes, the game leader stops him and puts a firm line across his check list; there is a time limit for each question, because he has several more questions to ask and there are more participants waiting. The next question: “Do you have a green scarf for me?”, and the cycle repeats itself. This goes on for a bit. Sometimes, the participant is able to find said article, but he fails just as often. In the end, he has failed the expedition.
What would you use instead of a backpack if you knew this had happened to your predecessor? Forget speed! The goal is to show as many right items as possible and not to collect them as fast as possible. A wise choice would be to bring a wardrobe on wheels. When you come across a sock, you put it in the sock drawer. Scarfs are huddled together with the gloves and hats, underpants with the t-shirts, coats go on the rack, etc. When you subsequently come to the game leader and he asks for a specific item, you know where to find it. There are two possible outcomes: you either find the article or you don’t, but in this case, you know that you do not have it. You can implore the game leader to skip to the next question. In the end, you perform much better than you predecessor.
I tell this story as an analogy for studying. Many students apply a working method that is comparable to carrying the backpack. They collect the PowerPoints, read the texts, do the assignments and buy all the summaries. They throw, without making a distinction, all information into an imaginary backpack until it bulges out. Subsequently, they cannot see the wood for the trees. They have a lot of information, but only little knowledge.
This leads to obvious problems during the exam. They cannot find the needed information anymore: “I have read this somewhere, but I cannot remember it precisely anymore.” Or they dump all sorts of things on their answer sheet in the hope the answer is in there somewhere: “I am told that I know a lot of things, but do not give answer to the question.”
Inertia and digressive movements
Most students are, after my story, willing to put more effort into categorizing information. They are, however, soon confronted with something unpleasant: they experience inert progress with digressive movements that unsettles them. “Plodding along with a wardrobe” feels very cumbersome. It is a slow process and it costs a lot of energy to consider every item and then to sort it accordingly. “Running with the backpack”, on the other hand, feels very goal-oriented and fast. Students who experience this distinction in this way find it very difficult to keep up the wiser, but also slower working method. They often relapse.
Not the whole story
This difference in experience (slow and cumbersome versus fast and goal-oriented) is not the whole story of this relapsing. As is often the case, here, too, a misconception about learning creeps through the corridors of our minds. On this point, the scouting expedition is inadequate on an important level as analogy for studying for an exam. It seems as though the success of the person with the wardrobe is solely due to his organizational skills. He collects the same materials as the user of the backpack but organizes them more shrewdly. Users of the backpack may be tempted to justify their working method by saying: “Okay, it might not be as smart, but I collect the same items in my own way. I even collect many more, because I am faster. I only have to make sure to find them.” This interpretation is understandable, but wrong.
To arrive at this conclusion, people rely on the meaning of “organize” as ordering and sorting. This is a possible meaning of the word, but, according to me, not the right one to refer to learning. Organizing can also mean to establish or create. Think, for instance, of organizing a party, event or concert. These happenings do not exist as a collection of part-happenings that have to be organized together. They come into existence through the organization. I am of opinion that this meaning of “organizing” is more suitable to refer to knowledge acquisition.
From the perspective of the first meaning of organizing, students can be tempted to view “I have read this somewhere” as almost knowing it, because they have recognized a fragment of information. This does not mean much. It is comparable to almost winning the lottery if your ticket deviates one number from the winning combination. It is regrettable, but you have lost completely. In the same way, students might think that a list of all kinds of facts, which might have the right answer in there somewhere, is quite the achievement. But this is the same as shooting a widespread shotgun at a target. Indeed, that one round that hits the target did come from your gun, but in the haze of a hundred rounds that were shot, that, too, is insignificant. It shows very little skill.
The fragments themselves are irrelevant; their organization creates knowledge. I say this often to students: “attending classes, taking and working out notes, asking questions, reading literature and summarizing texts, are no preparations for learning, they ARE the learning.” One could possibly set these activities up in a more efficient way but skipping them has large risks. Buying a summary instead of making one oneself, might seem smart, but it impedes the learning process at the root.
Broadening the analogy
The story of the scouting expedition needs to be broadened. Participants should consider the building of the wardrobe as part of the game. The participant is not collecting predetermined items (pieces of clothing) with the help of an organizing system (wardrobe) as a mere tool. Without the wardrobe, the pieces of clothing are not only unorganized, they are meaningless! They are only random fabrics.
You can give deeper layers of meaning to the expedition. Sometimes, one is tested on general knowledge (do you have a red sock?), but especially in university education, the questions are often comprehensive (what type of pants do you wear at the pool?), or questions of application (how do you knot a tie?), insight (what goes well with a bright blue shirt?), and also creative vision (assemble a sporty and daring outfit for a night out on a sultry summer evening). The simplistic ordering of fabrics is hopelessly inadequate when one must achieve such ends.
Mind maps, overviews and inquiry-response models
For students, overviews, mind maps and inquiry-response models are examples of “wardrobes”. These techniques bring parts of information together meaningfully. That is what it is about. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Knowledge and understanding is created in the whole. It is certainly not easy to create a qualitatively high-standing overview or mind map. It takes time and energy, but again: making a mind map or overview is no preparation to the learning, but part of learning itself. When the overview is done, you have learned.
In the case of inquiry-response models, the same is true. My hero Socrates already claimed millennia ago that a good question is more important than the right answer. The question determines the context and creates the connections that render the answer meaningful. Even the right answer does not have meaning in itself.