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Learning at its Best

Making Schools about Learning Again

I have to say I was one of those kids for whom “school was okay.” I didn’t hate it, but neither did I love it–and I was, and am, a lifelong learner. I like learning, even when it’s hard–I get great pleasure out of figuring something out, gaining new knowledge that I can then use, and then, often sharing it.  I like the struggle that comes with solving a puzzle of some kind. I have handheld games (that require strategy to play, such as Othello and Yahtzee) all around my house and lake place. I have a game shelf in my classroom kids drool over-and then go home and ask their parents to get those games. My kids know I love it when they teach me a new game, especially one where they (initially) can beat me. (Okay, I’ll admit it, sometimes they keep beating me!) But what really gets me going is an opportunity to interact with others over a topic of interest and depth–one like discussing an issue like in Hurt Go. Happy about animal testing, or looking at articles online and trying to help kids think like historians as they debate whether John Smith was an historian or liar. (See Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? and Was John Smith A Liar?) I have to think, I have to study and I have to question, debate, infer, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize to participate thoughtfully in those kinds of conversations. In other words, I am learning at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy as I struggle to make sense of complicated issues. Hmmm, much like real life, yes?

Recently I read one of Dianne Ravitch’s posts where she quoted a teacher named Algot Runeman (@algotruneman)  as saying,

Let’s start talking about the reality of learning. It is incremental. It is a constant struggle. If it isn’t a struggle, it isn’t worth doing.” 


Keeping a positive attitude, getting up after a fall. Moving ahead to the next challenge. Those need to be our expectations.”

What hit me about Mr. Runeman’s comments was that we, as educators fighting the fight for high tests scores, have completely lost sight, in many places and in many classrooms, of what learning is and how it affects us. In many schools, it’s about scoring highly on the post assessment after the unit has been taught. It’s about passing the weekly or bi-weekly tests that predict how the student will do on THE tests. PLCs are called “data parties” because we list which kids are proficient, which are “bubble kids” (almost, but not quite, proficient OR failing) and we list the kids who failed. What we don’t talk about is what the kid already knows and how to move him or her from that level to the next. What we don’t talk about is how to help kids learn how to learn for themselves, or what they can do when they don’t know what to do. What we don’t talk about is how to help kids develop perseverance when they hit the wall and need more information, or a different strategy to try to solve the issue with which they are struggling. What we don’t talk about is how to help kids develop stamina as they struggle with really hard problems–ones where it takes more than a few minutes to solve the issue they have been given. What we don’t talk about is giving them the strategies they need to become those lifelong learners we talk about in our vision and mission statements.

What we need to do, as teachers, is to look at kids as learners, not test takers. We need to remember what learning feels like–the sense of accomplishment we feel when we solve a problem or suddenly understand something or the pieces click together to make sense! We need to recall the sense of power we feel when we work on something and our prior knowledge helps us complete or build or make it. The feeling of success when we accomplish something we’ve never done before builds confidence in our own abilities and others giving us positive feedback reinforces that confidence. Confidence allows us to face the next challenge stronger and more likely to persevere. That ability to persevere and build stamina for struggling with a problem allows us to attack harder work with confidence and so the cycle continues.

We need to find ways to excite kids to the topics at hand, and allow them to find their own topics and explore them as well.  We’ve all been asked “Why do we need to learn this?” and we need to be able to answer that beyond “You need to know it for the state test.” We need to understand what kind of world our students are growing into–and we need to help them, even at an early age, understand things like media literacy, norms and rules and behaviors of social media, and world issues. We need to help them understand where we have come from as a country–whatever country you teach in–and the injustices we have done as a nation, the successes we’ve created, the problems we’ve set up and we need to help students paint a vision for themselves as to where they want to go–both in their personal lives and in their lives as a citizen of their country.

Teaching is bigger than going in every day and working through the textbook.

And so is learning.

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


5 thoughts on “Making Schools about Learning Again

  1. I love the way you frame it as a struggle, as something bold and expansive. For all the talk of raising standards, you bring up the reminder that the biggest increase in standards is a standard that learning is life.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | June 10, 2012, 11:38 am
  2. I am a firm believer in what you imply on the one hand and yet seem to take away on the other: that learning is life, naturally. It is integral to life, and thus, by definition, we are all “lifelong learners” whether we “do” so consciously or not. To suggest that someone else is “not” learning is, I believe, a value judgment about what they are learning, not an accurate evaluation of whether or not so-called learning is taking place. Look how often people watch young ones at play and remark, “Well, yes, I can see that your students are enjoying themselves, but are they *learning* anything?” That seems like a ridiculous comment to me–similar to asking, “Yes, but will it help them score any higher on the standardized tests?”

    Who is to say what learning is ultimately worthwhile and what is not? That “school subjects” are more important than practical knowledge? (I know that we as a culture recognize this conflict. Why else would we use such expressions as “Wait until you get out into the Real World!”, and “Her knowledge is merely academic”, among dozens of others?)

    I look forward to the day when our young people will be freed from forced schooling so that they can spend all of their time participating fully in real learning, real life, and not suffer the damage done to their natural living/learning processes that lead so many to a college degree and the inability to find/create meaningful work.

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 10, 2012, 4:09 pm
  3. The framing of your needs, Paula, is fantastic. Learning is most often challenging and rarely obvious as to approach; it does require confidence and grit and the ability to bounce back when routine self-assessment identify changes that must / should be made. John, as always, your comments are right on target as well.

    Might I emphasize two points. The first is that it never ends. Honest effective learning is indeed lifelong as has been mentioned. And it can always be expanded to wider applications, more useful applications, to more deeply understood visions of what’s happening. Ironically, I suspect those who are labeled “experts” are the ones most willing and most open to a new viewpoint, a new application, to the notion that learning is lifelong AND ENJOYABLE.

    The other point is that with the exception of those areas of knowledge that are really defined (e.g., we “know” that 1 + 2 = 3 because of our definitions of the numbers sequence as well as those of “+” and “=”), we can and must talk about current knowledge as USEFUL or NOT USEFUL. That is, for current applications at the current levels of understanding, knowledge is either useful or not useful in addressing a situation we face. Because of the uncertainty associated with development of the knowledge AND the assumptions / constraints necessary to both develop and then apply that knowledge, we must expect that there will be situations when the knowledge is not useful AND situations when the ongoing development of that knowledge will make it more useful!

    Posted by John Bennett | June 10, 2012, 4:19 pm
  4. Thank you Paula. Learning is one of the great pleasures of life, unfortunately often experienced outside of school. (Unless in your class.)


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 11, 2012, 7:44 am
  5. Awesome post, Paula. I think, also, that we have to model the creativity and improvisation inherent in learning – that learning isn’t about finding the right path to the right answer about any topic – that it is, instead, about going, discovering, making, and reflecting in iterations of increasing understanding. ¡Viva “different strategies!”


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 14, 2012, 12:16 pm

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