Subject Styles

People talk a great deal about learning styles, and teaching styles. I wonder if it is not even more important to think about subject styles. Different subjects represent different ways of looking at the world–and thus each communicate themselves more naturally in some ways than in others.

History, for instance, is a story above all. It’s about what has happened to people, tied up in a way to help us make sense out of it. If it’s to do us any good as history–a tool for examining our own lives and times, not merely facts to regurgitate on an exam–then we must receive it as a story. (Or, once we have enough age and understanding, compose it into our own story.)

Science is primarily about observation–and at the outer boundaries of physics and astronomy, imagination. It is about seeing (hearing, touching, smelling) correctly, and then about understanding what it is we see.

Language is give-and-take, repeated over and over. This is how we learn our own first spoken language–listening, listening, listening, and gradually repeating the forms we hear we come to use it as our own. Written language and second languages follow similar paths.

Mathematics is a puzzle and a game. It is moving information about quantities around until it is in the shape we want it.

Understanding what a subject is helps cut through which ways of approaching it are worthwhile, and which are likely to be tedious or time-wasting. Some methods just fit some subjects better than others.

Mathematics fits so naturally into games, for instance, that it is difficult to conceive of a game that does not involve math–if only in keeping score. On the other hand, when stories are used for mathematics,  they are usually (and properly) more frames to present a puzzle than genuine stories. On the other hand, most attempts at games about history teach only a few isolated facts after a great deal of game time; fun to play, perhaps, but not nearly as effective at genuinely learning history as hearing one exciting incident.

Standard textbook approaches tend to put every subject through a language paradigm: read, write, repeat. (Not using very interesting language, either, as a general rule.) On the other hand, many attempts to make learning more "fun" use methods based on their popularity rather than on their suitability for the subject.

There is room in all subjects for more enjoyable ways to do them, but they need to be suited to the subject. Act out the history event instead of playing a game about the facts. Look at real flowers and find their parts instead of singing a song about them. Use a puzzle that you really want to know the answer to instead of an arbitrary story problem (however colorfully drawn) to apply a math concept. Read the sort of books you would really like to write, and learn to mimic them.

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