In my experience, learning is a process. In this process, students try on new ideas, test new skills, grapple with discomfort, and become comfortable in the grey area of cognitive dissonance. At some point in the learning process, the learner moves from not knowing to knowing, from seeing to doing. Learning requires the learner to assimilate new information into an existing schema, and to build connections and access points to that new information. A quick look around my classroom highlights my belief that learning is a creative process. Posters read, “Wisdom begins in Wonder,” “Can’t...yet,” and “Mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected.” Above the academic calendar, in big block letters, another quotation reads, “If you get tangled up, tango on.” A colorful flow-chart hangs next to the student turn-in bins, depicting the effective effort and growth mindset cycle from Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Flags with words like, “curiosity,” “openness, “persistence,” and “flexibility” hang along the back wall. Each of these posters underscores the critical importance of respecting the process of learning, and of refusing to give up just because learning becomes challenging.
Learning occurs when students are curious, engaged in the process, make meaningful connections to peers and to prior learning, and have the opportunity to take ownership of their education so that it is clearly relevant. After all, this is how adults learn in the real world. We have some need to know -- some curiosity that is piqued by necessity or interest -- and seek out answers. Often, we process this new information with others: peers, colleagues, friends, family, even a book club. Students learn in these same ways. I have seen the transformative power of curiosity, engagement, connection, and ownership in my own students’ learning. For example, at the end of the fall semester, my students voiced a concern that “reading for school” kills the book, and as a result, stifles their literacy learning. Although I was distraught, I looked to my students for a model of how to re-engage them, considering how they express themselves, motivate each other, and explore new ideas: social networks. Over the winter break, I offered extra credit for students to “joy read.” We signed up en masse on Goodreads.com and created a group. I stocked the digital bookshelf with contemporary books that tied into our course themes. As they read, they posted about their learning online, commented on one another’s posts, liked statuses, and expressed joy in finally finding a book to love. Literacy learning occurred in my students because I encouraged them to explore new topics (curiosity), engage peers in discussion (connection), and see the impact of reading on their future learning lives (relevance).
Practically speaking, educators know when students have learned based on how students perform on formative and summative assessments, including everything from a formal paper to an informal discussion at Office Hours. Beyond reaching a certain score, I always look to see whether or not a student improved, and has internalized the content. During any given class period, I make numerous checks for understanding before we ever get to the summative assessment. I know a student has learned something when he or she can appropriate that learned knowledge to help solve a new problem, or understand a new situation. Mastery of learning looks like adept and creative application of skills to new and challenging tasks.
Ultimately, my role as teacher is to influence the learning of my students. I have been trained to approach that objective in a well-planned and reflective cycle: target the learning objective, collect data on different needs and styles, plan learning experience, execute, assess, and start back again with the target. I feel confident in my curriculum designing skills as central to how I influence student learning, have a solid grasp of how to map scope and sequence in service to my students, and understand how those “big picture” objectives translate to day-to-day tasks that will positively influence the learning of my students. I am always looking for ways to make content accessible to students of all learning styles, and believe that an organized approach to instruction benefits students with and without learning challenges. I also believe that I have a positive rapport with my students, which engenders trust and students’ willingness to take a risk in their education. While I firmly believe that a significant way in which I influence the learning of my students is through carefully planned experiences, and clean, backward-designed units of study, I also believe that I can influence learning by modeling what it looks like to investigate questions because of personal excitement. Backward design is an immensely useful framework, but can feel static at times. Influence also stems from the more dynamic approach of connecting with students, remaining flexible to their interests and questions, and creating a safe learning environment where they are free to fail.
At this point in my career, my personal theory of education is one that is student-centered, hands-on, and carefully planned, while remaining open to the organic influences of real-world learning. I know that learning will look different for each of my unique learners, but that for all of them, it will be a process with no definitive finish line, and a number of creative detours along the way. And at this point, I rather like that learning can still be messy, and if we dare, fun.
What I'm reading:
- Miller, D. (2009). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Miller, D (2014). Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Lehman, C. and Roberts, K. (2013). Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts--and Life. Plymouth, NH: Heinemann.