3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 

 

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Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Learning about Learning, Questions

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