Thinking is Natural…

Thinking is a natural automated act, just like breathing and heartbeat are, and therefore it is impossible to teach someone to think. However, it is possible to help develop someone’s thinking, by helping develop a creative, curious and questioning mind. – John Dewey (paraphrased quote by Gil Dekel, PhD.)

As “teachers” we can guide, we can learn alongside, we can promote, we can encourage, we can bring about opportunities, we can question, we can share, we can provide resources, we can get out of their way.  What we can not do is the one thing that gives us our name…TEACH.

Teaching is best used to disseminate information and to provide learning through direct instruction.  Want to learn some facts or algorithms? Teaching is a good verb to use.  Want to develop the curious, thinking mind? Provide the opportunity, support the learner created process of exploration and inquiry, help the learner develop understanding through resources and guidance.  Teachers… You are a seasoned and professional “learner“. you can do it.



Can we Look to the Past to Help our Future? I sure hope so.

As the educational world undergoes another “Tech Revolution” with portable devices and ubiquitous access, it is important that we consider a few important things:

  1. Just because a device is easy to learn doesn’t mean it will make learning easy.  Ever marveled at someones skill set with a machine or device you had no experience with (think wrecking ball, military tank, VCR, or that damn child safety lock that used to be on the stairway gate)?  Well, their skill with that machine or device doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will be able to adapt their skill to a new problem.  In other words, knowing how to operate a wrecking ball can’t effectively help you record a TV show just as skills with a VCR will probably not help you take down a building.  Finding a way to use a device effectively requires making sure you should be using the device for the task at hand to begin with.
  2. If the teacher/facilitator/guide doesn’t know the tool being used how can we expect innovation in teaching and learning?  A TI-88 graphing calculator in the hands of a competent user is a beautiful thing to behold but using the device ONLY for its basic level of operation renders it a very expensive dollar store calculator.  What kind of work gets done comparatively?  Inch-deep-and-mile-wide work.  The device doesn’t hold the key to progress and advanced understanding.  It is the intentional, functional, learner appropriate and targeted use of the device, in conjunction with deep learning that makes this a reality.
  3. We have seen this before.  Let’s learn from the past.  I was a student when the first computers entered the learning world.  We quickly learned to type final drafts and have them print on the dot matrix printer.  I made cool BASIC programs that said my name, asked me questions or had no function at all (anyone recall 10 PRINT “Hello There” 20 goto 10?).  When I began teaching, we welcomed Windows 95 into the education world and typed papers, learned a formula or two in Excel and then began using the computer for looking up information.  Years later we still perform almost the same tasks on the new computers and the amount of innovation in teaching and learning has been minimal.  Why?  We are sitting on one of the greatest POTENTIAL tools to positively change pedagogy, teacher roles and responsibilities, student empowerment and implement learning that gets closer to an individualized education model for every student.  These types of shifts don’t usually have an outside influence that we can point to as the motivator.  It usually comes through reluctant pushes and pulls instead of the rush of professional curiosity, exposure, empowerment and new found abilities that technology can offer.

Let’s be smarter than the last edtech revolution this time.  Let’s involve the end-users (teachers and students) in the process of developing new learning, purchasing tools, supporting educational rethinks, lesson/project design and teaching pedagogy and practice.  It’s worth the forethought… and it always will be.

Learning to Listen. Learning to Observe.

Okay, I know the question below is impossibly large. It leads to unwieldy amounts of information and makes for a discussion where anything is possible.

So what do you think deserves consideration when thinking about learning and education?

However, as an exercise in brainstorming it sure brings forth many VERY different ideas from people.  One of the ideas that came from a yoga instructor I spoke with last week was the following:

“Students…no, all people need to learn HOW to listen.  We are never taught these types of things directly but imagine if just by discussing how to listen students were able to improve because they connected something to the way they work.  It would take so little effort and yield a huge return.”

I have considered the value of thinking about your thinking (metacognition) for quite a few years in the context of my own students and then in my work with teachers but I had only taken baby steps into that seemingly formidable world of neurocognitive science.  So I started researching a bit about the value of direct instruction for functions like listening, observing, speaking.  Of course, one of my favorite writers, Annie Murphy Paul, recently wrote a great article on her blog entitled, “The Power of Intention”.  In the article she writes (read whole post here):

Skilled learners go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the speaker will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant.

These are absolutely perfect traits of a skilled learner who has key skills in active listening.  Imagine the impact if students understood that they can improve simply by applying some basic listening skills to their daily effort.  It is the difference between, as Sherlock Holmes put it to Watson, “seeing and observing”.

Imagine and Invent…Don’t Re-invent

In the article, Reinventing School from the Ground Up for Inquiry Learning, author Thom Markham opens with the following statement:

A grave miscalculation exists in the minds of many educators: That inquiry-based learning, project based learning, and 21st century competencies can flourish in industrial model schools. Under this world view, the inquiry goals of the Common Core State Standards are “strategies” to be added to the existing list of classroom techniques, while skills like collaboration, communication, or creativity can be taught despite 43-minute periods, desks in rows, and pacing guides set in stone.

In other words, reaching the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy is important, but less so than maintaining regimental order.

This is not the first article I have read dealing with “rethinking” schools.  It seems that whether it is Sir Ken Robinson, Young Zhao, your neighbor, the friend of a friend who is a teacher, or a politician, there is one thing they have in common;  schools are doing it all wrong.   We feel empowered by these utopian pictures of the perfect school and learning environment, the benefits to the future and our feelings that we wish we had experienced some of the “new thinking” when we were kids.  Meanwhile the number of studies involving brain-based research and education proliferate and our collective understanding of how young people learn increases.  Yet, many of these specific recommendations are not put into practice, or worse yet, the conclusions are overgeneralized until the outcomes are no longer possible when implemented.  This leads to more rethinking, more re-organizing and more confusion.

What can we do?  What is possible? How do we get there?

People fear change and yet strive for it all the time.  Is it change we fear?  Is it the fear of comparing the new way to the old way? Or is it that we must embrace a change before we know if it is going to “work”?  Of course there is value in analyzing the mistakes and successes of the past to inform our present and improve our future.  Yet to truly begin to “rethink” schools we have to begin by thinking of what the true purpose is:  to “rethink” what we know about learning.  And this is a far more realistic goal then rethinking a system such as school.  Here is why.

  1. The hard science of learning is rooted in brain-based research. Most research studies are about how people learn NOT how they learn in an institution called school.
  2. We are humans.  We have an innate skill and are naturally adept at learning.
  3. In the history of humanity we have never had the amount of information available to us as we have now.  Let’s be smart about using it.

These three reasons alone are enough to take the plunge and invent school and learning.  Reinventing implies that we begin with what is familiar and what works.  But what if we begin with a true blank slate and evaluate everything that impacts learning using peer reviewed, verifiable research?  Schedule, time of day, sleep, exercise, creativity, focus, food and nutrition, meal frequency, value of social interactions, responsibilities, family communication, nature, nurture, community, motivation, skill building, time on task, expectations, goals, philosophy, metacognition, hands-on learning, value of experts, collaboration, assessments…

 [NOTE: the list gets longer the more I add commas.  Share yours in the comment section and I will update the post as time permits.]

So what do you think deserves consideration when thinking about learning and education as a blank slate?

Where do we begin? Share your thoughts in the comment section and I will incorporate them into a future post.