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Learning at its Best

I know nothing…but I’m learning

I had a wonderful meandering conversation recently with Co-op Cat, Scott Nine.  We shared ideas and thoughts on a wide range of topics.  But one has really stuck with me: “maybe we should be less focused on knowing and more focused on learning.”  Our educational system and our culture as a whole has seriously privileged knowledge.  To know things, to have knowledge of facts and to possess skills these are the goals, aren’t they?  That is why we teach at, and lecture to, and test and test and test.  Do the kids know the material yet?  What do they know?

The more I think about it, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, knowing is less and less interesting to me.  It seems that to claim “knowledge” of something is to end a process, the process of learning and growth.  Some things we strive to learn are indeed arrived at via short straight paths.  I want to know the state capitals, my multiplication facts, how to spell “conundrum,” how to tie my shoelace, e.g.  So I memorize and I practice.  It’s easy and relatively quick.  I gain confidence and self esteem and a false sense of my own worth.  I know stuff.  But, in general, the things anyone can claim to know are either of little value (easily Googled facts) or else they are fleeting and illusory or simply not “true,” but rather represent a single perspective (“I know that Columbus discovered America.”)

Long and winding road

In contrast, those things that I am learning, these are things that are worthwhile and will demand my deep engagement and sustained attention.  Things that I don’t yet know (and may never know) often locate me somewhere along a very long and winding road towards something like…where? Wisdom? – Perhaps these paths are infinitely long, with many forks, obstacles and side roads.  In many cases it seems that the more elusive the final endpoint is, the more intriguing, engaging and compelling is the journey.

Since Scott and I talked last weekend, I have become somewhat obsessed with this concept.  So much so that I have shared this dialogue with my amazing class of  eleven 9-12 year-old students:  “So, for the moment, let’s try to forget about what you “know” or “don’t know,” I said yesterday.  “Instead tell me what you think you are learning.”

It took a while for the kids to join me on this ride.  We had to explore these words for a while.  But what they came up with, as I scribbled furiously in my notebook was awesome.  Here’s a taste:

I am learning to listen to people who are younger than me and take them seriously.

I am learning how to handle my worries and fears.

I am learning to keep trying when I don’t get something right away.

I am learning to carry peace with me in my heart wherever I go.

I am learning to trust… other people and myself , too.

I am learning when to be loud and when to be quiet.

I am learning how to listen to my body.

I am learning patience.

Wow!  Okay, these examples were definitely highlights, and it is an edited list for sure, but aren’t these gems?  And in each case is this not something worthy of the long and arduous learning journey?

I love the idea of valuing learning because you can be anywhere along the path, just starting out, or almost there, and you are still learning.  As long as you are on the path, you are not at risk of “failure.”  The work is just as valuable anywhere en route.  Some of these outcomes, which the kids expressed above, will never be fully achieved or attained.  That’s why they’re so hard to measure and assess, but that’s also part of their intrinsic and inherent value.  It is not a reason to shunt them aside as our school system does far too often.  Rather the journeys that involve this kind off learning are what give life meaning.  We need to join kids on the path to exploring big questions and concepts and realize that what kids know or don’t know may be of some interest at times, but it is not what education “is for.”

Here’s to preserving awe and wonder!

Can we imagine an educational system that values learning more and knowing less?   What would it look like?  And what are you learning?  I’d love to hear.

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


6 thoughts on “I know nothing…but I’m learning

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I love hearing other teachers’ stories of open communication with their students. Sometimes, when I’m feeling like I am a less-impactful teacher because I can’t have genuine communication with my students in Japan (due to the language barrier) reading an article like yours reminds me that even if I can’t speak to my students in this manner, I also can’t read their minds. Your students’ words are in the hearts of all humans; this desire to learn and grow. I imagine my Japanese students have the same thoughts and desires your students have.

    Posted by Terry Dassow | November 19, 2012, 9:05 am
    • I was thinking about pen-pals (or email pals) for a while, but it takes some time to get the teachers I team-teach with to “come up with the idea on their own” if you know what I mean. So, I’ve finally talked about it enough that one of my teachers would like to be able to set up an email or letter exchange with students from an English-speaking country. The grammar topic my students will be writing about is practicing introducing a Japanese cultural item to a foreigner who may not understand it or ever have hear of it. Does this sound like something your class would be interested in?

      Posted by Terry Dassow | December 4, 2012, 10:28 am
  2. Thanks so much Terry. I had a student this fall who wrote a poem that began: I need to learn. It’s a little like eating or sleeping or breathing. If I don’t learn I’m less of a person… I agree with you, this is a universal human need. Having the opportunity to play a role in this natural process of kids’ learning and growing is a gift we teachers have been given. I visited your website and read some of your blog and it looks like you are seizing the chance to play this role judiciously, wisely, humanely and with a great sense of fun. Good for you!! I am sending warm thoughts and hugs to you across the great Pacific.
    Hey, would your kids be interested in having some younger pen pals here in the States? Let me know.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 19, 2012, 10:11 am
  3. Paul, thanks for this post – learning feels much more exciting than knowing to me in the same way acceleration feels more compelling than maintaining a constant velocity.

    What do you think about “knowing” as “trusting?” I feel like I fundamentally trust others whom I assume “know” in the same way I do. I’m thinking about matters of empathy, politics, pedagogy, and science here. How does “knowing” color learning and relating to others?

    I don’t mean to be deconstructivist, but I wonder about how we relate to others when we learn to learn, rather than learn to know, given what we already know. You know?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 27, 2012, 3:08 pm
    • Hey Chad,
      Terrific. Yes. It feels very safe and comfortable to learn to know, and to trust in others’ knowing that is really just a reflection of ourselves. It’s comfortable but it’s boring. And learning to learn, where the system is an open one; you don’t know the outcome; you’re open to the possibility of transformation as well as the real possibility that you might never “know.” That is scary stuff, scary but absolutely exhilarating.

      Learning to know and knowing that you know? Well, that’s just a no-no. No? SORRY!

      Posted by Paul Freedman | November 27, 2012, 11:36 pm

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