Monday, February 12, 2018

Why -v- how

Reading on in the Culture Map, I've come across a chapter about two styles of reasoning: principles-first and applications-first.  Reading this reminded me of the way I was taught maths, and how in turn I taught maths to upper elementary and middle school students.  The first method, principles-first, is deductive reasoning where conclusions are drawn from general principles - you start with the big picture and then narrow down.  Conversely, applications-first reasoning, also known as inductive reasoning, draws conclusions based on a pattern of factual observations.  Now here's the interesting thing:  while people are capable of both types of reasoning, the pattern of reasoning we expect is influenced by our country's education structure.

Let's get back to maths.  If you are taught using an applications-first method, you learn the formula and then practice applying it.  Understanding the principle comes after you have mastered the formula.  This is how I was taught.  In maths lessons we spent most of our time focusing on applying the formula, and only a small amount of time on understanding the concept.  However when I have taught maths, I've used a different approach - first we have had students explore the concept, so that they come to understand the general principle, then they apply it to various problems.  In these classes students spend about 80% of their time focusing on the mathematical concepts and only 20% of their time applying this to actual problems.

As adults, people from principles-first cultures want to understand the why behind anything before they will move to action.  They don't like people telling them what to do, without explaining why they need to do it.  People from principles-first backgrounds feel that being told what to do without why they need to do it is disrespectful and demotivating. However, people from applications-first cultures are more focused on the how, and they find people who ask the why questions to be uncooperative.

In fact this explains a lot about my experience in meetings.  As an teacher I've moved from the way I was taught (applications-first) to the way I believe it's best for students to learn (principles-first).  This means that in meetings I'm constantly asking why, rather than just going ahead and implementing things that have already been decided on.  While I find meetings where there are just decisions and no dialogue challenging, I can see that my attitude is also frustrating to other educators who just want to know how to get something done.  While I want to debate the standards (why is this important for students to know?  Is it significant, relevant, engaging and challenging?), they want to focus more on how to actually teach that standard in their curriculum.  Clearly collaborative planning in a multicultural team that has these different perspectives can be hard!  This explains why sometimes we're very slow to make decisions, and why at times it seems like there is conflict and inefficiency in the meetings.

This chapter was really important to me in helping me to understand some of the rigidity and inflexibility I've noticed in some of our recent meetings.  It's been hard for me to go to collaborative planning meetings, where I've expecting to be part of a shared decision making process, only to find that the decisions have actually already been taken and are simply being shared with us - and all we need to do is to think about how to implement them.  Being more aware of these cultural differences will really help me in these meetings I think.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds Flickr via Compfight cc

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