Learning is a process with two key phases: action and reflection.
We have an experience, we reflect on the experience, we expand our understanding by making new connections, and then we act, trying something new with the learning. Teachers describe this as instruction and assessment. Instruction is the action, the doing, the experience. Assessment is reflecting on the impact of the learning on the self or the student.
The current model for learning design in Ontario schools is to begin a new lesson with a Minds On task, something to trigger prior knowledge or spark curiosity. Then we move to the Action part of the lesson, the things the students are doing to learn the new skill or explore new knowledge. The students own the learning, the teacher facilitates the process. Finally, there is Consolidation, a chance to reflect on the learning, to see where it fits in the students’ understanding of other things, and to decide on next steps.
We can all engage in action and reflection whether we are learning formally through a course or teaching ourselves how to bake.
- Self: When I am learning something new, how do I build reflection into the process?
- Teacher: How do I balance instruction and assessment?
- Leader: How do I share my learning process with staff and students?
Learning feels like a rollercoaster.
When we learn our energy is affected. Learning is change. Sometimes we feel excited and positively energized by learning and sometimes we feel frustrated and negatively bogged down by learning. It’s normal to feel a combination of both when we are learning something new. In fact, the best learning happens when we feel a combination of familiarity and disorientation, clarity and confusion.
I always know I’m learning when I get angry. Typically I’m not an angry person so when I feel my emotions shifting I know I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone to a more vulnerable place. The challenge and conflict can overwhelm me. I wonder how an hour ago I felt so confident and how now I feel like an absolute mess. But inevitably when I stick with it a path out of the pit emerges and I climb out of the darkness into the light a new woman.
- Self: How can I sustain my focus during the difficult parts of learning, when I’m in the pit surrounded by darkness
- Teacher: How can I teach my students perseverance?
- Leader: How can I leverage motivation and purpose to inspire staff to accept the learning challenge and better cope with the stresses that come with change?
Learning looks like a carnival.
Learning sparks intrigue, curiosity, and delight, offering many choices and modes of experience. Carnivals invite us to enjoy them on our terms, spending our time (and money) where we want whether we spend hours at the dunk tank or the ring toss or equal amounts of time at each feature. They support individual experiences and collective experiences.
When we really look at learning there are many things going on at once. Individuals make choices constantly about what they will embrace and what they will resist. We learn for ourselves and our own gain, but we also learn in relation to the energy of the group surrounding us.
I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was resistance and there was low engagement. Was learning happening? Were we going to take these ideas back to our schools to implement in our classes? Probably not.
Then I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was encouraging and there was high engagement. It made me want to take more risks, plunge into new layers of thinking, and make connections between the experience in the room and my classroom.
Learning is most impactful when there is a high level of engagement, collective enthusiasm, and individual choice.
- Self: What motivates me to learn something new?
- Teacher: What does a high level of engagement look like in the classroom?
- Leader: How can we mobilize our school communities to generate more collective enthusiasm?
Learning tastes like my cooking.
If I learn slowly with careful preparation and attention to detail the rewards are far greater than when I learn quickly. Fast learning is about as good for us as fast food. It fills an immediate need but it doesn’t provide the value of a healthy, home cooked meal. In today’s world we need both types of learning to suit different needs. Fast learning is figuring out how to use social media to find and connect to friends. Slow learning is figuring out how to sustain lasting friendships.
Fast learning is reading the latest news about global learning. Slow learning is reflecting on how global warming affects my life and what I need to do to have a lighter footprint.
The Information Age has overwhelmed us with constant, ubiquitous fast learning. It’s such a blessing to have access to knowledge on anything at the press of the button. But as individuals, teachers, and leaders we need to persist in the pursuit of slow learning, of reading to understand, of thinking critically about the information and its implications to our lives.
My cooking is as good as the time I spend doing it. Meals that take hours to prepare are far more nourishing and memorable than meals that took minutes to toss together. When we feel tired and sick, we often look to our diet, making changes to invite more energy. Let’s apply that idea to our learning. When we feel stuck and we are not seeing progress in our work and our lives and our projects, then let’s look to our learning. Slow learning is about the process, the journey, the intentional steps toward a goal. Begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Create a learning plan, like a recipe, that shows a singular focus, a sequence of steps, and a desired result.
- Self: What does my current learning diet mostly consist of, fast learning or slow learning?
- Teacher: How can I create conditions in my classroom to nurture slow learning?
- Leader: How can I model slow learning for staff in the pursuit of my individual learning goals and our school learning goals?
Learning moves like a spiral.
Learning is continuous, expanding, and moving. Each time we learn we open up more opportunities for learning something else. Lessons repeat over time, bringing us deeper into our understanding. The learning spiral moves through our days from birth to death, affecting our choices and values and relationships.
From the earliest humans, we’ve collectively learned about technology, each century evolving into more refined methods of efficiency and effectiveness. As a species we reflect on what went wrong in previous generations to try and make better decisions in this one. The same lessons repeat year after year, decade after decade; they always have and always will. Learning is the soul of evolution and learning is our gateway to personal and collective change. Learning is natural.
Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about 10,000 hours of practice making an expert: slow learning over time with action and reflection. Our school curriculums are designed to support this idea. Last year our school focused on strategies for multiplication. Every class from Kindergarten to Grade 8 did a multiplication task, modified to grade level, about the number of muffins the baker made. It was amazing to see the continuum of learning spread out in front of us in the student work. As the students got older, their strategies for problem solving were more sophisticated. Even though they may have solved a similar problem seven years prior, Grade 8 students now solved the problem in a different way that accommodated more complexities. And these students will continue to learn about approaches to problem solving (whether in math or life) beyond the walls of our school.
- Self: How have I learned about problem solving over the course of my life? What do I still need to learn?
- Teacher: How can I use metaphor as a way to support my students in reflecting on their learning in a meaningful way?
- Leader: What problems need solving in my school? In education generally? What is my first step toward finding solutions?
This article was first published at Sunshine in a Jar: Taking the Lid Off Learning.