What I Learned This Summer

I’ve been teaching at the secondary level for 18 years.  Add another couple at university level, and it makes an even 20.  Here’s the kicker: I’m still learning.  I can’t imagine that I could continue teaching if I ever stopped learning.

This summer, I presented at a conference at a university and did several workshops at the local education service center for teachers.  As I shared at those events, I asked some questions I thought were important.  I asked, “What percentage of your students are good ‘pencil and paper’ learners?  That is, they learn well in our traditional classroom environment?” The answers kind of surprised me.  They ranged from 0% to 20%, and most of the answers were at the lower end of that range.

Then I asked the teachers, “How many of you were good ‘pencil and paper’ learners when you were in school?”  More than 80% of them raised their hands.

Now, first, these responses ought to give us a pretty good idea why many teachers can’t comprehend why students are not learning well, with retention, from the methods they use in the classroom.  The more intriguing question, however, is: If we know students don’t learn with mastery with the methods we are using, why do we continue to teach the same way?

I also asked, using Todaysmeet.com as a back channel tool, “What’s the last thing you learned that you were excited about and wanted to tell someone else?”  Of course, the answers varied widely, from new recipes to how to paint a straight line to new web tools for the classroom and many more.  Then I asked, “How did you learn it?”  Again, a wide variety of answers, many of them having to do with learning from family or peers, lots of collaboration with others with similar interests, and a number of technology tools, from Wikipedia to Pinterest.

Most interesting in all the answers to the “how did you learn it” question was that not one involved sitting in a classroom, using a textbook or worksheets.  What was uniform was that all of the teachers enjoyed learning in the ways that they had used.  Now, remember that most of these teachers had said they had learned well from traditional methods–yet when they want to learn something new, they seek out opportunities other than the classroom.

So here’s what I learned this summer: When humans are allowed to learn in ways that appeal to them, they choose means that not only appeal to them, but also means that, for that individual, creates learning that is not only retained, but also leads to an excitement about what they have learned.

I have heard teachers say things like, “My students don’t want to learn anything.”  Of course, that’s not really true.  All human beings enjoy learning.  In fact, the survival of the race has always depended upon the capacity of humans to learn.  Students are simply bored by traditional classroom methods and, even more, most of them are not very good at it.  They don’t learn well from the “sage on the stage/sit and git” teaching model, and are often discouraged because they can’t retain Algebra or World History or Physics.

That’s why we, as teachers, need to learn.  We need to learn how our students learn best, and then find ways to adapt our methods to the ways humans really learn deeply and with retention–that is, that brings about true mastery.  Let’s get to it.

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