On Teaching Learners

Human DNA by Grabthar on Flickr (CC-By-NC-SA)
Human DNA by Grabthar on Flickr (CC-By-NC-SA)

I have several posts that I plan on writing about my past weekend at Educon. Before I proceed, let me just get one thing out of the way: this was one of the best conferences I have ever been to. I’m going to talk in a future post about why I think this was, but, in the meantime, if you are someone who has an interest or investment in the current state of K-12 education, I strongly consider you attend Educon.

Specifically, however, I want to talk about my first ah-ha moment at Educon. On Friday afternoon, I arrived at the Science Leadership Academy and went on about an hour long tour. I attended with Jeff and Jen, and they were along for the tour too. It was led by two students at SLA, a senior and a junior, and they did a fantastic job of showing us around and answering questions about what it’s like to be a student at this school.

About half way through the tour, we found ourselves in a biology classroom; I believe the class being held was a biotechnology class. When we walked in the students were in small groups, and each had a laptop open. They were obviously talking and referring to something on their computers. While Jeff, Jen, and the student guides continued around the room to talk, I stopped to observe what was going on.

After about five minutes (the students had been working before we came into the class, but I don’t know for how long), the teacher asked them all to direct their attention up front. Then he called on one student to report back to the class about what his group had found. I realized that each group had been searching online for protocols for an experiment they were, presumably, getting ready to conduct. The teacher led the students through an exercise in which they shared what they’d found. As they talked, he wrote the steps up on a white board. He quickly noticed when they left something out, and would question them until they noticed the error. He asked other students in the class to chime in when the protocol they found was different.

In essence, the students were collaboratively writing the steps they needed to complete in order to conduct this experiment.

The experiment was one I know well. They were getting ready to extract DNA from their own saliva. I know this experiment well because I vividly remember conducting it at my high school (I attended a magnet school for science and tech in the late 80’s-early 90’s.) I can remember standing in the biotech lab at my school, waiting for the DNA to become visible in a tiny clear vial with a black plastic top. I probably still have that vial somewhere; it was one of the most profound experiences I had in high school. The truth is, the experiment isn’t that complicated or hard to do. But for me, at 15 or 16, knowing that the cloudy smudge in the vial was my own DNA was like poetry.

But, as I watched the students in that class I felt a deep sense of sadness, too. I couldn’t really understand why. Over the course of the next day or so at Educon I talked to a few people about what I had witnessed, and, gradually, I realized what had touched me so much about the experience.

The school I attended is known, in particular, for turning out elite young scientists (although I was never one of them). Students can take an impressive number of courses in topics that aren’t offered at many of our colleges or universities. Upon graduation, they are often poised to move directly into advanced science, technology, and engineering courses of study, and many of them go on to graduate degrees and impressive positions.

SLA, I realized over the course of the weekend, despite the “science” in the title is less interested in turning out elite scientists and much more interested in turning out elite learners. The former is appropriate if you are 15 or 16 and destined for the life of a scientist, mathematician, or engineer. The latter is appropriate no matter what path you choose.

What made me so sad? I did that experiment in high school. It touched me, deeply. But I didn’t work with my teacher to research and develop my protocol. I was handed a book or a sheet of paper with steps that I had to follow, precisely. I was graded on how well I followed those steps, precisely. My school thought it was training me to be a scientist, and it valued me, as a student, by how well I fit that mold.

But since I didn’t choose the path of Elite Scientist upon graduating (and I knew this fairly early on in my high school career), I spent most of those four years and many years afterward, feeling inadequate, unintelligent, and unimportant. What a lesson.

SLA seems to be teaching its students to become the best learners they can be. There is no one mold to fit; there is no one answer to any question. Students are expected to be as much a part of the questions and answers at their teachers. What a lesson.

I thought a lot about the title of this post. My first instinct was to call it “On Training Learners” or “On Making Learners.” But that was because my instincts were derived, I think, from my own high school experience where I’m afraid my school’s instincts were to “make” or “train.” I suppose you can make or train a scientist; but you can’t make a learner and you probably shouldn’t “train” one, either. You can, however, teach a learner, and hopefully you can teach them to be a learner, forever.