Teaching meaningfully or covering textbook content?

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by James Cordonero, Keiser International Language Institute

For those of us working in education, teaching a class that is meaningful to our students can turn out to be an elusive goal. Several factors may prevent instructors from achieving such a goal, chief among them: lack of time to prepare a meaningful lesson and the tyranny of the contents to be covered in a textbook. The latter factor often poses a dilemma for most teachers since some of the topics in a textbook may be completely irrelevant to the reality students live in, and yet covering pedagogical material usually takes a higher priority at the institutional level. This is where teachers’ creativity, experience, and resourcefulness come into play to make pedagogical material come alive for learners and give them something to get their teeth into, so to speak.

An effective teaching technique includes problem-solving activities that present students with cases, even worst-case scenarios, and follow-up questions to guide analysis and foster discussion. For example, a unit dealing with intelligent transportation systems, the kind of technology which is still science fiction in our country (regardless of the newly installed “smart traffic lights” in Managua), could turn into a good opportunity to discuss common issues in the Nicaraguan context such as drunk driving fatalities during the Holy Week, road accidents, and traffic jams.

Another technique for instructors to move beyond rote learning and take a quantum leap into meaningful learning is by encouraging students to think critically. One way to foster the development of high-order thinking skills is by posing thought-provoking questions instead of just providing input. This can give instructors a chance to kindle students’ interest in the seemingly unappealing topic to be covered in the next unit or chapter and thus get a class actively engaged in the learning process while activating background knowledge. For instance, a unit related to abstract art can be introduced by raising questions that make students voice their opinions about what they like or dislike about art in general and what they know about the different forms of art in Nicaraguan culture. They could also be asked hypothetical questions that require them to think or imagine what the world or a particular society would be like if art did not exist, or if saving valuable pieces of “art is worth a life”, a central theme explored in the film The Monuments Men.

As teachers, we should always bear in mind that meaningful learning is knowledge that solves a problem or addresses a particular need. Unfortunately, in many educational institutions in our country, breath of coverage has a higher priority over contextualized and meaningful knowledge. This counterproductive approach to teaching results in nil but classes about everything and nothing in general where students are overloaded with meaningless facts and required to parrot them without even digesting the data, not to mention analyzing them.

In brief, a more down-to-earth approach to teaching and a focus on real-world related matters can contribute to altering the entire culture of a school or school system. It enables students and teachers to explore different types of reality-check scenarios, which is what ultimately will prepare students to tackle with tangible issues. Meaningful learning entails crossing the artificial boundaries of the academic disciplines and injecting a dose of reality into students’ brains so they become more competitive in a fast-changing world. Let’s dare to jump over the fence of conventionality and shift the emphasis from cover-the-material memory work to a more hands-on learning experience.

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