Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Widening the gap between education and learning.

I have said, out loud, many times that education is something that is done to me. Learning is something I do.

After reading George Couros' article titled, School v. Learning, I realized that I was focusing on the wrong thing in that statement. I was very focused on who was doing what. I was being educated (outside force) versus I was learning (intrinsic force). What I should be doing is redefining what learning really means.

As I was commenting on George's blog (see how I refer to George like we are old buddies? Funny.), I found that I was using 'learning' and 'teaching myself' interchangeably. Isn't that what we want for our students? Independent learners? Those who teach themselves?

I think of things that I am proud of learning. I taught myself how to do those things. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I learned. I taught myself how to use Doctopus. I learned. (I know it sounds funny, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out Doctopus.) So, that begs the question: "If students are supposed to learn independently, teach themselves, what is the role of the teacher?"

Well, the answer is not something contained in a single sentence. We all realize that we are going to have to teach our kids new things, content and such, but how can we shift the focus from what we teach to improving the quality of the learning process? How can we stop filling our students with stuff and begin to improve the way they learn? This would have to start with a few things:

  • Vertical articulation of can't removal.
  • Seeing failure as a place to begin, not quit.
  • Putting less of a focus on correct answers and more of a focus on how we found the answer.

If you do these things, you will begin to focus on the quality of learning process rather than what is taught (listen to me sound so definitive). So, let me give a brief explanation:

Can't removal.

In a post modestly titled "How to fix education," I talked about "can't removal." What I see in my classroom is a firm belief that "if at first you don't succeed, it's obviously impossible." We must refuse "can't" at all levels and at all times. It happened one time before Christmas break. Once. First time. A student said,

"Mr. Barner, I ca.....Mr. Barner, I don't know how to do this."

This student knew I wouldn't accept "can't" and rephrased. When your student says that the "don't know how" rather than "can't" do something, they allow for the focus to be the process of learning over the content. So, then, the next time they walk up to a possible "can't" they remember the skills they used earlier and apply those to this new learning. They improve the process of learning.

First Attempt In Learning.

I've talked about this a lot. Failing without modification to the learning process is ridiculous. Like super ridiculous. In order to improve the learning process we have to see failure as a scientific result of effort. I think this happens in three ways:

Person 1. I don't give effort. I find no success. I quit
Person 2. I give effort. I find no success. I quit.
Person 3. I give effort. I find no success, but see how a change in research or product or PROCESS could lead me to success.

The effort given by the third person sees failure not as a label but as an opportunity to try again.

I can't help myself...take learning to walk as an example:

Person 1: I can't walk. I've never really tried. So, now I don't walk.
Person 2: I can't walk. I tried hard once, but fell. So, now I don't walk.
Person 3: I can't walk. I tried about 4000 times and every time I fell down I changed the way that I approached walking. I used the times that I fell down to come up with a better system of walking. Then, I took a few steps and fell down, but then kept trying. Now, I can walk.

I'm just saying, we don't have many 34 year old crawlers. Our kids have it in them to fail and then achieve.

Less focus on "right." More focus on "how."

As teachers, we are so very focused on correct answers that we don't always take the time to identify how the answer was chosen. I remember my first day teaching kindergarten general music. Imagine being a first year teacher with 28 kindergartners in your room. It was terrifying. I remember asking the students to get in a circle. It was like asking 5 year olds to disprove Einstein's theory of relativity. So, I then had to instantly break down the steps of how to get into a circle using only the vocabulary and spatial understanding my target audience could comprehend. We made it into a circle. It wasn't pretty, but it was a circle. What was the alternative? Saying over and over again, "Get into a circle! I can't believe you aren't in a circle. Are you listening to me?"

Now, of course, that sounds ridiculous. We would never treat our students that way. But, think of how that translates to a middle schooler.

T: What is the meaning of life?
S: 42.
T: No, the meaning of life is to better society.

What if the teacher asked, "How did you get that answer?" rather than just saying no, and then give the student the answer (some questionable punctuation in that sentence)? If the teacher were to ask, "How did you get that answer?" would they then know that the student just finished the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and actually answered the question somewhat correctly and out-and-out humorously?


So, getting back to the main premise: Education is something that is done to me. Learning is something I do. Can we remove "can't" from the conversation? Can we allow failure to be a guide rather than a dead end? And can teachers ask the "how" before responding "no?" There is something here. Something big.

Your comments are welcomed and encouraged,

Dane Barner

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