Reviews Teaching Writing

Playing, Learning, and the Teaching Problem by Barbara Fister

All learning and no play makes students dull, writes Barbara Fister.  Well, not exactly.  Instead, she reviews Allison Gopnik’s NYT piece on the learning processes of small children, with possible applications to the classroom.  Gopnik describes how young children, who are naturally curious and love exploring and imitating, can perform the same task by imitation as if they are taught that task explicitly, yet when taught explicitly, they lose the opportunity to discover on their own.  Fister and Gopnik argue that students are better off learning when they search and discover on their own, creating their own understanding of the world during that process.  These discovery processes are richer.

Fister wrestles with applying this practically to the classroom, noting that freshmen are intensely curious about assignment requirements and often don’t have good models of academic writing and research. When they visit the library where Fister works, students often don’t explore and discover the process of research–instead, they seek to check the tasks off research to-do lists.  Fister argues that because they don’t have good models of how academic scholarship takes place, they focus on the manageable and boring tasks given by the teacher.  

Moreover, she argues that by explicitly showing students how academic scholarship happens (for example, finding and citing sources), the student’s discovery process is short circuited.  Such a direct approach jumps to the end result–sources–without wandering from source to source and appreciating how intertextual scholarship works.  Such an approach also mirrors our current searching goals: enter terms in a box and get results, instead of imitating the scholarly conversations in academics.  She ends with two compelling questions for professors, which are worthy of our consideration: “How will we give them a taste of the culture they’ve landed in, a sense of what people do at universities, and help them experience their own capacity to learn through self-directed exploration? How will we convince them that what we do with ideas is play with them when they are so used to being taught?”  Indeed, how will we?

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