The primary curriculum of an OPERI pilot is the 21st Century learning skills required for independent life-long learning and problem solving. It is a curriculum that applies the wisdom of the adage, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or teach him how to fish and feed him for life.” Giving students lessons often does little more than prepare them for tests, while teaching them how to learn prepares them for life.
The ability to read analytically, which includes the ability to read manuals or to decipher instructions, is one of the most important learning skills. It encompasses critical thinking and empowers people to teach themselves just about anything.
In traditional math courses there is little onus on the students to read analytically. Teachers spoon-feed the lessons to their classes and the textbooks are used primarily to assign banks of exercises. It is a practice that not only wastes opportunities to develop a critical skill; it also does the disservice of making learners feel dependent on teachers.
In an OPERI pilot, students who have chosen to obtain a math credit are given the textbook for their course with the understanding that they are to teach themselves. Their textbook is referred to as a manual and the students are expected to develop their analytical reading skills.
This approach does not cast OPERI students adrift. The OPERI teachers facilitate learning and monitor progress. Students can go to the teachers anytime for help, but when they do, the emphasis is to be on analytical reading skills, not math. The student is asked to identify the point at which the textbook explanation starts to make no sense, and then the teaching begins.
Analytical reading requires the ability to look at things from different angles, to adjust ones thinking just enough to gain a different perspective. It involves critical thinking, and might be thought of as mental agility. The teacher starts from where the student has become confused. A dialogue about what the student understands and doesn’t understand ensues. The student reads from the manual with the teacher helping him to dissect the meaning, to expand his thinking, to develop the ability to focus attention a little differently. The goal is that moment of “Eureka” when the student exclaims, “Oh, I get it now.” The math has been learned, but the lesson was more about thinking.
Throughout the exchange the teacher never owns the problem. An OPERI program transfers the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner, and the teacher keeps it there. Being responsible for self is an essential condition for independent, life-long learning. It should be noted too that this kind of exchange positions a teacher to determine areas where a student’s math foundation might be weak and what might be done to remediate it. From this example we get a glimpse of how the teacher’s new role is more personal. It can translate into improved relationships between teachers and students, better student attitudes towards learning, and greater job satisfaction for teachers.