Delivering Concepts?

The goal of education is to help students acquire the ability to make proper decision based on accurate data analysis.  The process of decision-making includes the ability of predicting future accurately as well.  In the education field, educators have been focusing on how to achieve these goals effectively.  The efforts include curriculum design, improvement of teaching methods, and development of teaching materials.  As the results, we have better strategies on teaching, various teaching materials, and various ways of teaching.  However, we still see some percentage of students who are not able to follow the classes very well.  This implies that we are currently facing other challenges that are neither from lack of teaching materials nor from the improper curriculum. Here we ask questions – What strategies do we have left to try?

What are the fundamental issues in classes?

Teaching is very challenging task.  Not all students follow the course materials as teachers designed. Some students understand the concepts first and memorize the lecture materials but still they tend to forget after the certain time.  Some students get good grade by memorizing the teaching materials but they may have hard time in understanding the concepts of the lecture materials. From the teachers’ point of view, it may be due to the lack of students’ interests to get involved in the lectures.  From the students’ point of view, it may be because of the teachers’ ways of teaching or lack of teaching materials.  Both parties have their own excuses to the very same issues.  Teachers ask students to focus on the lecture and students ask teachers to make lecture more interesting and improve the lecture materials.  Can we make these two – seemly parallel concepts – to meet so that we can produce a better outcome?

The issues we are facing in the classes are relatively simple.  Teachers trying to deliver the course materials and some students are either not willing to or having trouble following the teachers’ lectures because sometimes the lecture materials are not interesting to them.  The situations are not directly related to the curriculums or teaching materials in this situation.  Good curriculums and teaching materials enhance the students’ learning without doubt. Even though curriculums and teaching materials can bring the better outcomes, they are not as effective as we expected.  Thus, additional strategies should be applied to pull students’ attention to the course materials through a funnel.  Funneling students’ attention to the teaching topics would depend on the teaching methods.  There are many different teaching methods.  The problem is that each method has different strengths and weaknesses and one good method could not be accomplished.  The same pattern can be found from each subject that is being taught.  Each subject is built on theories and the theories are not perfect.  But there is one common subject among these.  That is “how the theories arose”.  Theories were born by making connections among the theories and the facts.  Hence, “how to make connections” would be the principal method to be used in classes.  This method can be represented as “Delivering Concepts”.

What is Delivering Concepts?

Each class, teachers provide students the concepts to focus on before starting the lecture.  During the lecture, the teacher tries to deliver the knowledge that students should know.  Some students follow very well, some are doing just okay., and others are having trouble understanding the lecture materials.  The main reason for the troubled students is that they don’t have interest in the subject or the course at all.  What these students want would be good grades even though they neither pay attention nor spending extra time to study the subjects.  Here we can ask a question again.  Can we make them focus on the lecture and make them participate during the class?  The answer is “YES” by delivering concepts (making connections).

When we see the speed of children’s learning, we are amazed.  They absorb knowledge fast and easily.  How do they do this?  Is it because their brain is still full of space to store the knowledge?  It could be but shouldn’t be the only factor.  It is more likely due to the methods they are using – asking questions and experimenting.  When they ask questions, they are not simply asking questions to know.  They are asking questions because they are thinking of the questions and trying to find the answers to the questions constantly.  This means that they are putting a lot of effort on it.  In addition, they also test their ideas to answer the questions.  What the children do is relatively simple.  They ask questions to build concepts, trying to answer the question by connecting the concepts, testing their hypothesis, and reconnecting the test results to the previous concepts.  This is the process of “building concepts”.  Concepts being built in the children’s brain while they are thinking about what is happening around them, asking questions about the phenomenon that they see, and testing what they want to know while they are connecting them each other.  During the process of building concepts, they started absorb knowledge that are related to the concepts spontaneously.  They enjoy these processes since they are the one determined to do this.  Here we see two very important factors in learning.  First, it has to be the children who have the will to learn and experiment.  Second, the method used is “building concepts”.  If teachers can apply children’s learning strategies to the classes, the outcome would be beyond the expectation.  The only question is “HOW?”

How to deliver the concepts?

How can teachers deliver the concepts while keeping students being interested in the topics?  As mentioned above, one of the ways would be connecting the teaching materials with the real-life applications.  This approach has been being tried by many teachers and has been known to be effective.  However, not all the teaching materials can be connected with the real-life application easily.  In addition, the connection between the teaching materials and the real-life applications can be easily lost when the topic is moving from one to another.  Can we deliver the concepts effectively while keeping students interested in the teaching materials?

We can apply the same methods that children are using – questioning and exploring the teaching materials.  As explored previously, children’s learning is maximized when the questions are coming out of their curiosity and interest.  If teachers can make students ask questions out of their own curiosity and interest, the problems would be solved.  However, this may not be the situation we find in our classes.  One of the reasons is that they have lost their ability to ask questions on new subjects that they are not familiar with.  Students are able to ask questions on the subjects they know easily but not on the topics that they do not know.  In other words, students deal with each concept as separate, without making connections which eventually stops the process of building concepts.  In addition, teachers will not be able to wait until students start asking questions from their own curiosity.  Thus, teachers have to initiate the processes of “building concepts”.  Initiation of “building concepts” can be as simple as asking questions to the students about the teaching materials.  Asking questions is the key to the concept building without losing students’ interest to the subject.

Figure 1 shows an example of how asking questions can deliver concepts (making connection) and building logics and knowledge while keeping students interested in the subjects using global warming as a topic.  The lecture should be started by asking students a question such as, “What is global warming?”  By asking questions, now students started thinking about global warming and try to utilize knowledge they had from the readings and news.  Once gathered general information from students on this topic, now teacher can lead students to the next question.  When migrating from topic to topic, to maximize the outcome of teaching, the question should be coming from the students by letting the students guess what questions should be asked next.  This method keeps students on tract that the teacher prepared.  From the figure 1 step 2, the question about carbon dioxide would come from students without any hints from the teacher.  As lecture goes on and discussion goes deeper, there will be some students who are not able to follow some parts of the lecture.  For example, some students will not be able to connect the plant and the animal relationship in gas exchange easily.  Instead of providing them that the plants produce oxygen by photosynthesis and animals produce carbon dioxide by respiration, teacher can ask following question – “Where does the carbon dioxide go while we are breathing?”  With this simple question, the students now get the concepts on gas exchange processes between plants and animals.  The students will also build the concepts about balances in nature and about unbalancing the equilibrium by the carbon dioxide emission from human activities.

Starting from the step 3 in figure 1, the topics include some scientific knowledge.  By asking questions about greenhouse effect, students will have to connect between the greenhouses they can see and the effect of carbon dioxide acting as glasses of the greenhouses.  The teacher then can move one step further to more advanced area where dealing with characteristics of sunlight.  This advanced topic can also be started with questions as, “what do you feel when you are under the sunlight?”  This question leads the students to think about the characteristics of sunlight, as they know in their everyday lives.  “Delivering concepts” on how the light produces heat, converts its physical characteristics, and related with greenhouse effect can be delivered effortlessly.  In step 4, the teacher stimulates students’ thinking by asking, “Where does fossil fuel come from?” and (or) “How long would it take for nature to make fossil fuel?”  With these questions, the teacher guides students toward the sustainable development with details.  When the topic is moved to deforestation, the teacher provides students some questions they would know about.  Then funneling the students’ ideas to more detailed area such as ‘Why does deforestation matter?’, ‘Why is the rainforest the problem?’, ‘What is the characteristics of the plants in the rainforest?’, and ‘Who are the people cutting the tress?’  In this way, the teacher orchestrates the students from the general ideas of global warming to the very advanced areas such as the evolution of plants to maximize the photosynthesis due to the even sunlight throughout the year in rainforest area in a very simple way.  The teacher can even move further toward the geological characteristics in equator area.

What is the role of asking questions in delivering concepts?

As mentioned above, children learn effectively in very short time by asking questions.  They build concepts by asking questions and they build knowledge as they build concepts.  Asking questions bares two most important factors.  First, it captivates and holds the interest of the person who is asking the question.  These further motivates the person to think about the topic and explore deeper the concepts to get the answers.  Second, by asking questions, the person reminds him/herself about the question continuously even during the process of asking questions.  Thus, asking questions initiates the process of thinking and experiments with the person’s own intention and it also networks the concepts that are related. 

Many teachers know by heart that asking questions is the most important process in learning.  This is why teachers encourage students to ask questions.  However, not many students ask questions during the classes.  As mentioned previously, students do not ask questions not just because they are not interested in the subjects but also because many have lost the ability of “asking questions”.  Since many students lost this ability, teachers should encourage and trigger the process of asking questions to bring this powerful tool back into their lives.  When questions are provided to students, students will start thinking together with teachers, trying to solve the problems, and participating the classes actively.  As long as the questions are continuum of one another, students will not get lost during the lectures.

Time to start asking questions

Asking questions is the most effective way of delivering concepts since it provides connections from concept to concept.  It also provides streams of logic that are involved in the topics.  Students will be exploring the lecture materials willingly rather than waiting for the knowledge to be provided.  They will also search for logical explanation when the questions are provided.  Students will develop logical thinking and knowledge while they are searching for the answers to the questions.  This means that teachers’ job in classes is not delivering knowledge but initiating students thinking processes and guiding students throughout the lecture materials to cover.  When students get used to this process, they will ask questions out of their own curiosity.  When they can initiate questions on lecture materials, the creative thinking and seeing the big picture will follow.  The goal of education is to provide students tools that they can utilize in decision-making by analyzing and connecting data accurately.  Thus, all students should acquire the asking questions tool by the time they graduate from colleges or universities.  Now is the time to reawaken students’ ability to ask questions so they can build concepts by themselves.