Letters to an 8th Grader: Learning in Community

Old-fashioned-classroomDear ___________________________,

Your last letter to me ended with a fantastic question, though of course you are hinting at the answer yourself. You wondered why, if being proactive is so important, students should bother learning in a classroom setting. Surely, you suggest, learning would be far more efficient if it occurred on an individual basis rather than in a group setting. So, I would like to answer your question and then go into a bit of a longer explanation of the importance of learning in community.

In answer to your question, I would posit that learning alone as an individual is problematic in two primary ways. First, doing so denies the very definition of education that we developed previously. Specifically, we rejected the notion that education was primarily about the acquisition of information. If it were, then learning alone would be of benefit. If education did not require reflection, synthesis, or analysis, then learning anything would be akin to the way that a spreadsheet “learns”–that is, by simply being a storage system for information. Secondly, learning alone as an individual means that one’s mistakes are comparatively more devastating because they are not caught early on. This is because the lone learner does not have anyone around him against whom he can check his understanding.

Now, here is the positive case for learning in community:

First, the human brain is not a computer. It does not learn by simple inputs, but through integration. That is, at the very least, by the student restating the new knowledge in his or her own words. Of course, beyond that, proper integration requires students to synthesize the new information with previous knowledge and to situate it within the realm of his or her lived experience. In order to accomplish this integration, one has to have the opportunity for self-expression, evaluation of other opinions, and revision of one’s ideas. This only happens when other people are also involved in the educational process.

Second, teaching is primarily about the maintenance of the Great Tradition, but the tradition does not speak with a single voice. Rather, the tradition itself is a longstanding conversation throughout time about the most important ideas. If we are going to attempt to enter that conversation in the classroom, then we will be best served by doing so through conversation of our own. A multiplicity of voices in dialogue about an ongoing conversation discussing the best ideas is the primary way in which education takes place.

Third, the job of education is to assist students in rightly ordering their minds, in taking some initial steps toward discipleship. Being in a community of learners allows one to practice love of neighbor. It is a lot harder to dismiss another person’s ideas if one is face to face with that person. The classroom provides ample opportunity to practice humility, charity, and kindness. None of these things would be present learning in isolation.

I hope this letter encourages you in your own communal learning. Though dealing with other people can be frustrating, it is also true that other people often think and speak and write in ways and about things that will challenge you out of your complacency.

Faithfully yours,

Mr. Jeffers