I don’ know how I learned to learn. It’s something I’m pretty good at. It’s definitely one of my favourite things to do. But I don’t remember anyone teaching me how to learn, or even addressing the importance of becoming a life long learner. And the fact that I became a proficient learner, is really a feat in itself.
I think its presence must be the result of a flailing attempt to stay above the surface of university academics. It certainly didn’t show up before then.
You see, I was a November baby. I started school when I was four. And, I think, because of that, I always struggled in school. I don’t blame my parents. To be honest, I doubt they knew better. The year you turn five, you go to school. That’s what everybody does.
I can never remember being able to do math in school. And when I was in grade 3, I was part of the “slow” reading group, which seems odd, considering I’ve always loved books and been a voracious reader. I also find it somewhat ironic, since I now teach English. I would never have classified myself as being “academic”, and this had some pretty significant consequences.
I grew up with the notion that I would go to university; after all, my parents had been saving my college fund, since the day I was born. But I certainly had no idea what I would take, or the belief that I was smart enough to do it.
I graduated from high school with a 65 average, high enough to get into university, but not into a specialized faculty. After working retail for several years, the thought of attending university was an oasis in the desert. Retail was not my calling.
For the first few semesters, my marks were average, but I learned a lot. I began to learn how to write. I began to learn how to critically evaluate. I began to learn to think for myself. And it was painful. However, it wasn’t until I received an academic scholarship from the university, automatically given to the top percentile of students each semester, that I realized I was academically smart. If it wasn’t for that scholarship, I’m not sure what would have happened.
Eventually, I got pretty good at the school thing, and after graduating with my education degree, I earned a Master’s degree with honours. I don’t tell you that to brag. There are many people out there much smarter than I, but to show that obviously there is a disconnect in my educational experience somewhere.
And the math thing isn’t really an issue anymore, I teach Chemistry. How? I took it in university, when my brain was finally mature enough to process it. And when I finally knew how to learn. I don’t pretend that it came easily. It didn’t. But I’m prouder of those marks, than any of the English marks that took little effort.
Obviously this experience informs a great deal of my teaching now.
Yesterday, on a whim, I showed my students the cartooned version of Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms.
To be honest, I showed it to them, so they could see the cartooning work. I wanted them to see that there’s more than one way to create a video. After we began watching it, I thought, “this is good for them to hear”, since it affirms many of the things I’ve been telling them. At times, I wondered if they could follow some of the deeper political and economic concepts. Apparently they did.
When the bell rang, there was 2 or 3 minutes left in the video. No one moved. No one. That’s not easy to accomplish on a Friday, right before lunch. No one stirred to close their books, or glanced around to see what others were doing. I realised at that moment, something significant was happening.
When the video was over, they were stunned. A few said, “Wow.” But mostly there was silence. It appeared they were busy processing something they had never heard or thought of before.
I also realized at that moment that I need to talk to them more about their learning.
If education isn’t something we to do students, but a dynamic process in which they are the main players, then I think I need to intentionally share with my students what this process should look like, and what many other educators besides myself think of it. There are many educators, far more articulate and well-versed in this stuff than I, who should be part of my classroom, teaching my students via technology.
Furthermore, if the whole purpose for me being in my classroom is student learning, then shouldn’t I actually be talking to them and teaching them about their own learning?
So, starting this week, I plan to spend the first five or ten minutes of class, teaching them about their learning. I will do this several times a week, every week, every semester. This isn’t an add-on to the rest of what happens in my classroom. I think this is the critical foundation that allows everything else to happen. It’s hard for students to be reflective learners, when they have no vocabulary or background for what they’re reflecting on.
I’m going to start with Will Richardson’s My Kids are Illiterate, Most Likely, Yours are Too. I’m guessing most of my students don’t know they are, in some pretty significant ways, illiterate. I think, for some, this will be a stunning revelation. This is good.
Currently, I believe that I can learn almost anything I want to, partly because I’m tenacious, but more importantly I know how I learn, and I’ve been successful at it. This is what I want my students to experience. I want to create a classroom of reflective learners, who understand their learning and can articulate and evaluate it, who can advocate for better teaching, when what their getting doesn’t fit their needs, and who realize, in the end, they are responsible for their own learning.