Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not Alone

So my previous post was talking about some of the difficulties I was having with the SAS/Stats class I am taking. After, the last week of confusing lecture (and what actually felt like torture for 3 hours), I got to work on my homework (that I had been somewhat putting off just because I wanted to file it away and not think about it).

I went to the lab myself in the morning, and then I asked the professor a question. He reminded me that the codebook was located on UB learns, which I had forgotten. That helped. Then I brought up the e-mail I had sent him last week and explained something in words that I was not able to express in the e-mail. I also wanted to apologize in case he felt I was being too critical in the e-mail after all he is the instructor and I am just a student (though, I do not think I would have felt angry if a student had articulated their concerns in a similar way). It took him 4 days to reply to the e-mail, and he told us that he generally takes less than a day to do that (and that had been the case with previous questions), so I told him I wanted to apologize if I crossed some sort of line. He assured me that it was not the case and he found the suggestions reasonable (he actually plans to use them), so I will see if they are, in fact, helpful.

Later, I went back to the lab to finish the homework because my conversation with him lasted a long time. I found one of my classmates there and we started to work together, but in some ways it was a case of the blind leading the blind. Neither of us was very sure, and found being questioned just made us more uncertain. It was very easy to break out the eraser and change without really knowing if that was the right thing to do. Then one more showed up, but the answers she had were somewhat different from ours. And then two more showed up, and we worked through the problems together. The problem was that we all had the same questions and did not really know how to go about getting the answers.

It brings me really back to what I was writing about last week. Finding that it was not only me, and that these others were also having trouble. What was striking was that we were all female. In conversing, the others said they did not really feel comfortable addressing their concerns with the professor (in fact, they had said they liked the new way, but in reality, it was for different reasons--and the first week was ok, but it got more confusing). These students are not asking questions during the class and are not contacting the instructor after the class. They suggested that they did not want to rock the boat because if they were looking to work with this professor in the future, they wanted to stay on the good side. In other words, it seems like they viewed expressing dissatisfaction or lack of understanding would harm the relationship they had with this professor. There was little confidence in expressing this. In my mind, I wondered if this attitude would be different if the professor was non-male non-white (as a student mentioned in class the other day). In addition, two of the people who were there were non-native English speakers, a third was from working class roots. Which in my mind, are somewhat marginalized positions where questioning authority may be more challenging.

This experience really ties in nicely with what I am trying to write about for my paper in Sociological Bases in Education. I am very curious about gender and math achievement and the reasons that girls generally underperform boys in math, but when girls do get math they generally do better than boys. It is somewhat of a contradiction, and I wonder if much of these barriers are in how the math is being taught and who is teaching it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Top Down & Bottom Up Revisited

I was sitting in my Stats class this week and I realized that I felt lost. But I was lost in a way that i had felt lost before, and that was not so long ago. I felt exactly (exactly exactly exactly) the same way I felt when I was taking Chinese classes in China. In that respect, I suppose I could say that learning math and learning chinese are a lot a like. And I do not really like either one of them. But the thing is, I could.

I remember coming to this realization in China that I taught from a bottom up approach whereas my students were used to learning from a top down approach. This explained so many of the difficulties I encountered in the classroom, both as a teacher of English and a student of Chinese in China.

I learn best when I am given a big picture and asked to break it into part of if I am asked to examine parts after looking at the bigger picture. However, some people get really confused when they are given a big picture of something they have never seen before and asked to make sense of it. They need to have the little parts to put together and they can make the big picture once they have the little parts. In contrast, when I am given lots of little parts and I am not told what to do with them I get overwhelmed and confused (OMG! Is this why some people have neat houses and some people have messy houses?!?).

So I discovered in Stats class that I did not really get what the professor was talking about until the end, and had he started from the end then I could have followed what he was saying. And that this was exactly the same as Chinese. The teacher would start out by explaining unfamiliar vocabulary words and grammatical structures before telling me a complete sentence for an example. However, had she started with that example, I could have quickly absorbed the grammar and vocabulary.

Thus, it got me thinking more about the top-down and bottom-up approach. I wonder if there are gender connections to this as well as cultural connections. In fact, in China all the males (that I talked to) generally liked the way Chinese class was taught and found it useful whereas the females I talked to expressed the most dissatisfaction. (This really needs to be a more careful survey than just some impressions I had from talking to some people).

I think there could be a lot of advantages for students if they were placed in an environment where their teachers taught in the way they learned best. At the same time, there are also benefits for being able to understand information in both ways. However, if information is only taught in one way and there is a large group of people who are not benefitting from the way it is taught, then maybe it could be related to this top-down bottom-up difference. I know for myself, the bottom up is what works. I also get that top-down works for some people. I tried to incorporate both in my teaching, but I also found that it is hard to think in a way that does not make sense to me.

To me, this is one of the reasons multicultural education is important for everyone. I have the idea that teachers need to build bridges for their students to understand information and that it needs to be presented in different ways and in ways that may not make sense to the teacher (or seem backwards) but that would make sense to some of the students. Not all people think alike and globalization means that we are going to all need ways to approach problems and situations that are both critical and creative. By incorporating different styles of teaching and helping students be able to learn in both ways we can perhaps reach a greater percentage of students.

Another issue that came up was that of resistance, and I found a place where I wrote in my blog that I would continue to try to find ways to annoy my teacher under the radar. My students (see last post) did it to me, and I find I did it as well. When something does not make sense, we resist it. Acknowledging that resistance could be a gap in how knowledge is process is something very worthy of considering. I remember hating my psychology class in high school because the teacher was scatterbrained, disorganized, and nothing seemed to have a point. Now, I think she was probably using a bottom up approach. Thus, it is ironic to me know that I have came to prefer that way.

This will certainly be a place where I pay attention in research as it is something that makes loads of sense to me.