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Learning at its Best

Learning is transformational, can schooling come close?

After reading Gatto, I make a distinction between education and schooling. Schooling is, at least in its current form, a way to govern education, but more often than not, education can happen without it — as millions of home-schoolers in US and many other countries and numerous important people through history that didn’t go to school can attest to!

What I came to realize lately is that despite the fact that we mostly think of education and learning to be similar, they’re different in two important aspects. Education and learning are usually described as the acts of acquiring knowledge, behaviors or skills — when defining education, Wikipedia refers to these as formative effects on the mind, character and physical abilities, but those are just different technical definitions of the same things.

Though learning and education sound like synonyms, learning goes beyond and includes the act of acquiring (or changing) values and preferences. On top of that, learning may involve synthesizing different types of information. I think these two aspects of learning are greatly important to anyone looking at reforming the current schooling system. Moreover, they should be considered by all parents and teachers when thinking about education choices and methods.

I’ll try to explain this with three stories, but before that, let me give you some thoughts to keep in mind when reading the stories.

The power of learning to modify ones values and preferences is (probably forever) outside the reach of schooling. While schooling can force students to comply to certain behaviors, it can’t quite change their personal values. Of course, attempts to do so abound through history, often with the help of chemicals and psychological conditioning or even torture. Social engineering is a term that was fashionable in the last century and was used to describe some of those attempts. Unfortunately, remnants of it still exist today when we see people as mere Human Resources that should somehow be categorized, trained, controlled. (I recently watched an important film on this topic — Human Resources: Social Engineering in the 20th Century — I highly recommend it, but be warned, it is not for the faint of heart!)

Yet, learning can easily transform those values! I think the reason for this is that learning enables new insights to form by synthesizing new information with existing knowledge. This gives the individual power to reflect on their personal views over the issues upon which those insights shed new light. Learning is empowering the individual to take those insights and apply them to new situations!

Diversity of context breeds new opportunities for learning

The first story about the transformational power of learning is a lesson I learned from my six year old daughter!

She was only 2 when we brought her to Canada, from our home country, Macedonia. If you’re an immigrant with young kids, you can appreciate the struggle to maintain a decent level of knowledge of the mother tongue in an environment in which almost no one outside the family speaks that language. I would say we’re lucky that our daughter is still willing to make an effort from time to time to improve her command of the language.

One big problem in the Macedonian language is the command of the hard “R” — to imagine the sound, try to say BRRRR or VRRRROOOM. ;-) This sound sends many kids back in Macedonia to see a speech specialist by the age of 7 or 8, so you can imagine how hard it is for a 6 year old in Canada to master it. My daughter was trying on many occasions to practice by saying words like RIBA (fish), RABOTA (work), ZDRAVO (hello), PRST (finger). With many failed attempts, this has been going almost all of the time we’re in Canada. To say she was becoming frustrated doesn’t do justice to how she felt few months ago!

And then she nailed it in less than a week — using English! She came up with an ingenious idea by watching a children’s television series — on Youtube. ;-) In the show, one of the actors speaks with a tick Eastern European accent and my daughter found that amusing enough to want to try it herself. She intentionally converted words like teacher into teachRR, are into aRR, computer into computRR, etc. and asked me and my wife to talk the same way too. In no time, she visibly started improving her ability to say the hard “R” sound and after 5-6 days she totally had it under her belt  — or rather tongue. ;-)

Watching others learning is a powerful form of learning too

I heard the next story recently from one of my dear friends and I’ll try to use his words as far as my memory serves me:

“I grew up in a small village near Danube. There were only about 200 people in the village, with us kids numbering 30 something. As you can imagine, we did lots of things together. I can still remember some of the days up on the river or the woods, with endless games, fights, friendship…”

“I remember the day when one of the kids brought a skateboard — first in the village! None of us have seen one before, nor did anyone in the village knew how to ride it, including the owner, but we were all eager to try and learn. For some reason, the owner was willing to share it with all of us, so we took turns and had lots of fun, as well as bruises.”

“I remember vividly how quickly we separated into two groups. There were the risk takers, those eager to jump on the skateboard with no second thought about the chance to hurt themselves. And there were the rest of us, the watchers, who eagerly followed every action by the other group and only later shyly tried to do it themselves.”

“At the end, we all learned! We were so engrossed in the skateboarding that we got so far as finding someone with a motorcycle willing to let us hold on the side as he was revving his little engine through the streets.”

Learning liberates and empowers

The third story is about my father and his approach in teaching me how to drive a car!

I was only 14 when my dad let me drive his car for the first time. It was one of the most terrifying and at the same time most exciting experiences in my life until then. I’ve spend countless hours before that, sitting in the car as it was parked in our front yard and pretending to drive my little brother to distant places — shifting gears like a pro. ;-)

The first lesson that my dad gave me was how to change tires. I haven’t yet moved the car by an inch, but I was able to change a tire no matter if the car was at home, on a dirt or rocky road, on a slope… As I started driving, all through the driving lessons, he kept adding lessons how to check the oil level and add more if needed, how to add water for the windshield vipers, how to change a burnt fuse, even how to change a faulty spark plug.

When I was little over 15, I had my first “going out to town” trip with my friends, without my dad sitting on the seat next to me! I was mortified — I was driving probably no more than 30km/h down the road from our village to enter the town. Not because what I was doing was illegal — there were perks a son of a policeman in a small town could enjoy back then ;-) — but because I had no one next to me to help me if I messed things up. None of my friends in the car with me have come even close to driving yet.

Since I was too scared to park in any of the parking lots, I parked in some dirt off of the road where almost no other cars could be seen. Can you guess what happened on my second or third outing with the car? Correct, a flat tire! At least that was something that couldn’t scare me. ;-)

By now you’ll probably guess what was my first lesson when the winter and the snow came? Right, I learned how to put chains on the tires so I can drive up the hill to reach our home if stuck in the middle of the road!

The transformational power of learning

The first story with my daughter and the hard “R” sound teaches that learning increases its power when taken across contexts. She was able to switch the language she used to practice the sound for the benefit of the original language in which that sound is used. It is as if she decided she needed a new screwdriver to tighten the screw as the one she used initially didn’t do the job!

This makes me worried about environments in which virtual limits are imposed on the kids, because of the fear of disruption. Her classroom has a “no other language but French allowed in class” policy (she attends French Immersion), which is really a misguided attempt to create an immersive environment where everyone has to speak French so they can learn it faster.

The trouble is, this deprives the kids from efficiently communicating their needs, ideas, stories with the teacher and one another. Just imagine a joyful kid who just got a baby brother the night before entering the classroom in the morning and not being able to tell the news to her teacher — it would be an opportunity lost to make a connection between the student and the teacher!

The second story with my friend and the skateboard teaches that learning is not a privilege only for those running with the experience, but it is equally available to those watching others learning. It is important to emphasize that those others are learning, not merely showing or even teaching.

As we all know by now from research, we are equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to feel what others are feeling. It is the next best thing to experiencing it ourselves. It is the cornerstone to our capacity for empathy. And me and my friend believe it enables us to learn from each other — not in the traditional teacher-student way, but a learner-learner peer-like way. It makes me wonder if teaching without learning yourself is really a successful strategy for helping students learn!

Finally, the third story with my father and the driving lessons teaches that the best learning is not the one that focuses on the end-goal, but the one that enables the learner to independently continue learning towards that goal. By teaching for essential skills that promote independent learning, one empowers the student to take their learning in their hands.

The best coaches in sports often do this with their teams. It can be frustrating to spend hours of training basketball without actually using a ball, but the independence one can gain when the ball is in their hands allows them to continue learning even as they have long stopped with the formal lessons and are frantically trying to score to bring their team a victory in the final moments of an important game.

I got reminded how transforming learning can be the other day, when I decided to let my daughter get the razor in her hands and shave my beard. She hesitated and was scared to try at first. The first few attempts barely touched my skin. But as she gained confidence through the experience, I could visibly see her fear transforming into excitement. So much so that I soon had to ask her to slow down before making a cut on my throat. ;-)

If you’re a teacher reading this post, I’d like you to think about this question: Is my teaching transformational, or merely educational? If no, please take a look at the gap between the goal and the method and think of ways to empower, promote independence, allow other subjects and inputs to disrupt the flow. And if none of that works, start learning yourself in front of your students’ eyes and minds!

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About kima

Organizer: http://tedxkidsbc.com. Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Learning is transformational, can schooling come close?

  1. Your question “Is my teaching transformational, or merely educational?” may be answered differently depending upon time of year (before or after the tests) or discipline (especially at the elementary level where teachers tend to teach multiple disciplines with various depths of background knowledge/skill within each). However, it’s a transformational question in my mind!

    There are huge differences in test prep and teaching, but I don’t believe teachers have generally had the conversations and support to explore these differences. When standards were adopted and states developed multiple choice tests, companies and districts produced practice tests. The practice tests became the curriculum for many teachers and as long as the results are good, there are few who question what a teacher is doing. Your question and post is a call for teachers to question what they are doing, and I think this is one of the many steps we must take on the path to moving from a testing-driven environment to a learning-driven one.

    Posted by beckyfisher73 | February 6, 2011, 10:43 am
    • Thanks Becky!

      You made me remember my University days when we categorized courses as “easy, no learning required” or “hard, I better start reading the materials sooner” depending if the tests were multiple-choice answers or required problem-solving. There were also those in between where though they looked like problem solving at the surface, the professor would usually cycle no more than 20-30 standard questions, so one could practice them (or better get the answers from older students) and memorize them, reducing the test to a matching game. Guess which tests posed problems I still remember today?

      I hope readers reading the stories will glean more from them then my interpretation at the end suggests. I love stories because they can pack a lot of wisdom in them, even when they’re as short as my three samples! Unfortunately extracting the wisdom is not always easy, which is why we should all be asking more questions and trying to learn all the time!

      /Kima

      Posted by kima | February 6, 2011, 12:34 pm
  2. It’s not fun to feel that my answer to Kima’s question is moot. I’d also pose permutations of the question to children, parents, politicians, schools’ economic buyers (those holding the purse-strings), and public education administrators.

    Regarding Becky’s comment, it’s less the appearance of practice tests, and more the “as long as the results are good, there are few who question what a teacher is doing,” that’s the problem.

    How do we better distinguish between teachers with good scores, some of whom teach to the tests? How do we better distinguish between teachers with bad scores, some of whom transform or educate or school without regard for the tests? What do we do with those distinctions in public schools?

    Who is waiting for whom to say something else is okay, or even wanted?

    I’m a staunch proponent of teacher agency and reforming classroom practice. I have little idea how much that weighs against my scores.

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 7, 2011, 9:20 pm
    • Thanks Chad,

      I agree on the permutations and would love to see more children, parents, politicians, etc. on the Coop … maybe we can extend the voices calling for redefining school and focusing on learning instead of testing by connecting with communities that are already successful in sharing ideas and stories? … TEDx comes to mind ;-) … I asked the TEDx organizers if they would be willing to make room for including speakers on the topic of learning and schooling in their future events … I was excited by TED’s response that they’re “are in the process of implementing some exciting initiatives on the ED front at TED”!! ;-) … we will surely have this as an important topic during TEDxKids@BC ;-)

      When you say that the problem is in accepting that “as long as the results are good, there are few who question what a teacher is doing,” I can relate to that through so many experiences (just replace the word teacher with any of your favorite professions) that it makes me sick! I am also tired of cliches suggesting that “the time has come to question the status quo” … there’s is no “time” for questioning the status quo … we should do that all the time! ;-)

      Anyway, I am rambling and you raise another important point that is worth discussion on its own … that is how do you differentiate those teachers who do bring transformational education in their classroom despite the bad effect that may have on the test score and those who are genuinely bad teachers

      I think this is where principals and school administrators can greatly help … Kirsten in her comment below brings a great point when she says that figuring out when help is actually helpful requires relationship … you can recognize those teachers who are having a positive impact despite the bad test score by looking at the relationships they build with the kids! Of course, relationships can’t be easily tested, but I bet if we put our minds right here on the Coop we will come up with a handful of ideas … what comes to my mind immediately is giving opportunities to teachers to organize events and share their learning with the rest of the school on a totally voluntary basis … those with great relationship with their students won’t hesitate to do so … another idea may be to promote blogging by the teachers and open feedback from the parents and the students on the teacher’s posts … those teachers who do get comments are those with relationships as the kids are not afraid to speak up in front of them … I am sure reading this you’ll come up with few more right off the bat too!

      Cheers,

      Kima

      Posted by kima | February 8, 2011, 2:52 pm
  3. Kima, With regard to your question, what I see is that you trust your daughter to learn how to use a razor judiciously and wisely, as opposed to assuming that she cannot do this on her own. This is a distinction Paula raised here once long ago–if you see education as a “treatment” for kids, a necessary “addition” to them because something is missing or absent in them, then the act of education itself is constructed in a deficit model. The adult is the person offering the treatment or intervention, and almost automatically constrains the learner based on the extent of the adult’s own capacity.

    The beauty of trusting the learner to do things for themselves is that there is no assumption of deficit. The difficulty, of course, is figuring out when help is actually helpful.

    And that requires relationship.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 8, 2011, 11:08 am
    • Thanks Kirsten!

      I have to admit that I am troubled that I need to learn to trust her!

      My logical mind says that trust should come naturally, but for some reason that is not the case (and unfortunately conditioning through schooling and culture is the main suspect). I suspect this is a barrier for many people (not just parents, but teachers and others too). Fortunately, my experience says there is no better way to establish and strengthen the trust but practicing a trusting relationship — it is only ironical that practice helps in this ;-)

      Of course, the first few attempts are hard, but once you start, it is easier along the way … right now I am letting my daughter grab the steering wheel and steer the car into the parking at home, which already brought funny glances from neighbors ;-) … the past two days she’s also the main chef in the kitchen, chopping vegetables like a pro and making salad all by herself

      And you’re right about the relationship … can’t put it in words, but I can feel it! … I can only imagine how does a teacher with such relationship with many kids feel!!

      /Kima

      Posted by kima | February 8, 2011, 3:16 pm

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