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.

13 thoughts on “On Teaching Learners”

  1. Isn’t it amazing how just a simple change in the how the tasks are structured, how the all important “face time” is used, can change everything? And yet getting faculty to make the mental shift that requires, to focus on students being active learners rather than “covering content”, is a huge paradigm shift. I’m always fascinated by the faculty development piece: how did they get their faculty on board?

  2. @Terry — This was my first time at Educon or SLA, but I gather from what I heard that they got people “on board” by hiring the right people. πŸ™‚ And by having an inspirational leader (SLA principal Chris Lehmann) who seems to be amazing at empowering and inspiring both teachers and students at the school.

    Of course, there were LOTS of other teachers at Educon from places other than SLA, and it seemed that each of them had their own stories of how they got on board. As usual, there is no single solution or protocol. Hmmm. . .

    Your comment also makes me reflect a bit more deeply on the teachers I had in high school. I suspect they thought they *were* making us active learners b/c we were having this opportunity to do experiments, ourselves, that were usually not available or taught at the high school level. But, of course, that’s not what you mean by active learner.

    I wasn’t just being fed content at my HS — I do have to say that in its defense — but I also wasn’t involved in the construction of learning the way the SLA students were/are.

  3. Powerful post. I feel like you’ve peeled back the cover on assumptions that guided our education. I wonder how many other assumptions there are that resulted in similar unintended side effects on those of us who didn’t fit the mold we were being poured into.

  4. Your reflection really strikes a cord – thanks Martha/Steve/Terry. Appears we’re all facing the same frustrations – doesn’t matter where we are in the world.
    The sane and sensible drive to empower students to become more active learners, rather than continuing to force feed them content and measure the amount they can vomit back up (sorry about the metaphor πŸ™‚ is a HUGE paradigm shift.
    I see plenty of innovative teachers in NZ who recognise and accept the need for change but are hindered by a system which continues to insist we measure learning thru ‘recall & understanding’ – reinforcing the same old message to students and parents. We’ve got a fantastic new Curriculum but political pressure has recently re-imposed a form of Standards testing. Aaargh. It’s a frustrating time – we’re trying to teach in the 21st century but are required to test for the 19th.

  5. You saw and captured SLA and all it has been since its inception three years ago. I was lucky enough to attend the first educon, and I’ve held SLA up as a model ever since. Of course, that makes everything else less–of everything we need for our students.I have been following Chris since he was an English teacher at the Beacon school. He inspired his students then, and he continues to do that now for all of us. I’m so glad you all attended. And I hope we can continue conversations that let us connect and work together to help all students become the “best learners they can be.”
    By the way, Chris often visits family in VA. I wonder if we could talk him into stopping by to share his thoughts at UMW? I know I would bring a group from FA for that.Great to see you…

  6. @Donna — (I think you may be my first ever commenter from NZ! Cool! )

    I’m deeply troubled by the ways in which our most creative public school teachers are being hindered by the requirements imposed on them by ignorant politicians and bureaucrats, particularly as I plan to send my oldest off to Kindergarten next year. I think I’ve already decided that, as a parent, I’m going to do whatever I have to to minimize her exposure to such forces. I’ve even thought about keeping her home from school–for a day of museums or other educational field trips–on days when the activity seems to be centered on test preparation. After all, I don’t particularly care how she does on ridiculous standardized tests. I know that if everyone had this attitude it would, ultimately, affect the school’s standing/scores, but, frankly, my daughter’s education is way more important to me. I’m not sure if this a dumb idea, but it’s one I’ve been mulling over.

    But, of course, the deeper, more insidious issue is that great teachers aren’t being empowered to teach in great ways. And that’s a crying shame.

    @Susan — I’d love to continue the conversation, and it would be fantastic if we could get Chris in to talk to a group of people from FA and UMW. I really do believe that a more transparent K-20 conversation is critical to the future of all our schools, and Educon just solidified that for me.

  7. Thanks Martha – First from NZ,eh ? There’s 4 million of us and plenty of committed educators down here too…

    Your frustrations are universal – there’s certainly a huge opportunity for us as educators to inform our parents and wider community directly about changes to education and WHY we don’t want to be forever teaching and testing at the bottom level of Blooms Taxonomy – (maybe it needs to start at the grassroots level to reach politicians ?). Even the kids recognise what they need and I believe Student Voice is a powerful tool in the change process. We’ve made a few videos with students aged 5 -18 which I’ve used at the Kuala Lumpur Teacher’s conf. and our own national conferences. http://mindblown.edublogs.org/2009/07/07/partners-in-learning-yes-really/ (this one ends with a great haka inviting the community to join us etc) http://mindblown.edublogs.org/2008/06/09/weve-got-a-message/

    The Educon Conference sounds simply inspiring. I believe the five guiding β€œaxioms” from Educon must resonate strongly with most 21st Century educators and certainly align well with our NZ philosophies -and the professional development we’re striving to provide for teachers – it’s definately a global movement. This is great :

    1) Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
    2) Our schools must be about co-creating β€” together with our students β€” the 21st Century Citizen
    3) Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
    4) Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
    5) Learning can β€” and must β€” be networked.

    What we’re all interested in is the ‘HowtheheckdoweactuallyDOOOthis ?’. I’ll bet there was plenty of rich discussion at Educom – I’ll look forward to your next posts and any links!

  8. @Terry – I’m a founding staff member at SLA. I’m also the Technology Coordinator. You make a very good point asking how we got all the teachers on board. The quick & dirty answer is Lehmann, along with other staff members & students hand picked the facility via site selection. The long answer is very complex. We do professional development in so many different ways. Most of it is asynchronous and much more of it is on the spot training. After that we are all very conscience of a common language that goes from class to class. SLA is a building that has a tight community and the students can see all the adults walking & mentoring in the same direction. Now, do we mess this up? The answer is EPICALLY, & then we analyze them & confront it head on. We do try to avoid thus by always asking the question “what are the worst consequences for our best ideas? Are we transparent? As much as we can be. Do we want to be a cookie cutter manual for educators to take back to their institutions? NO! We want to be a guide & a reference. An awesome place to start it is in Nell Noddings’ book, The Ethic of Care. Children are first, you teach children, you teach your subject & tecology comes last. Sometimes the best tool is a pencil! Please email me if you want to talk more about the SLA staff beig “on board”. Great comment & great post, really made me think.

  9. @Donna — My amazement about a commenter from NZ was all about my not believing that anybody reads my blog but five of my colleagues and my dad (Hi Dad!). πŸ™‚ It’s awesome to hear from an educator who is confronting these issues in another country and educational system! I think your comment about involving entire communities in our conversation about education is critical. Thanks for the links; I look forward to following up.

    @ecram3 — It’s great to hear you talk openly about how SLA confronts it’s own mistakes. Working in this area in higher ed, a theme that we’ve tried to emphasize with faculty and students has increasingly been about making mistakes, openly. Modeling for students how you confront your own errors is a whole lot more important than showing them how you get things right all the time. “What are the worst consequences of our best ideas?” — what a great question to keep in front of you.

  10. 11 comments? Who do you think you are, the bava? I see your plan Burtis, brag me down in buzz, and re-ignite the blog…I’m watching you.

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