Tag Archives: Learning theory

A Great Teacher…

Tomorrow I will be teaching a course for substitute teachers. Yesterday I happen to talk to someone I believe is a truly great teacher. We bumped into each other in a grocery store. Since she looked troubled, I asked what was wrong. She replied, “I’m trying to do some math in my head.” We had a lot of fun with that. (She was buying some supplies for a class project that sounded really awesome.) Of course we ended up comparing notes and sharing “war stories.” People didn’t seem to mind going around us, standing in the aisle and laughing over some of the things we’ve experienced.

Towards the end of our conversation, we talked about some folks we knew who have recently retired. This great teacher said, “I’ve been teaching forty years.” We did some more math to estimate how many kids she’s taught. Then she added, “I really should be thinking about retiring, but I can’t.”

When I asked her why she replied, “Because I’m having way too much fun!”

The folks I’ll work with tomorrow may not be “teachers” in the formal sense of the word. But they will be teaching. My hope for them and the students they have–if only for a day–is that they will find the business of learning fun. It won’t always be easy. But it should always be meaningful. When we start to forget that, here’s a short reminder.

When Teachers Go Fishing…

Hannah caught her fish just as it was announced "time to leave."
Hannah caught her fish just as it was announced “time to leave.”

I recently had the opportunity to accompany a bunch of fourth graders on a school fishing trip. My semi-official role was photographer. But whenever I’m around the kids I’m also their coach and champion. So as I wandered about the shoreline looking for “photo ops” I also asked questions and offered encouragement and advice. I had some fun with the kids by asking them, “How many ya got?” When they replied “none.” I would try teaching them the fisherman’s answer. “As soon as I get the one I’m after and one more I’ll have two.” There is something of a never-ending optimism among fishermen. You can’t say you haven’t caught any until you’ve quit fishing.

One young fellow surprised me a bit when I asked about his catching. He replied, “I don’t think these fish like me.” I’m still not sure if he was sincere about his answer, but it was quite interesting to see how the kids reacted to catching and not catching. And there was another teachable concept in pointing out the fundamental difference between “going fishing” and “going catching.” Sometimes the process can be the result.

While a certain amount of skill is involved, ultimately the catching is up to the fish. (I used to have a little sign that read, “Even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if he kept his mouth shut.”) The fisherperson’s role is to engage and excite the fish into taking the bait.

One of the teaching processes we often use is called “Q & A Teaching.” The process is based on the sound principle of engaging learners because you teach by using directional questioning designed to get the students to take the bait. If it’s not done well, it can be a lot like fishing without much catching.

An example might be stating a word problem involving math, then asking the class “What information do I need to solve this problem?” (There’s the cast.) One student calls out an answer that’s totally wrong. (Your line is now in a tree and the fish can’t reach it.) If you’re lucky, the next student gives the right answer. But what do you say to the first student? Personally, I don’t think wrong answers are “bad,” but some would say that calling attention to wrong answers creates a negative learning environment. We’re supposed to ignore them and move forward–unless we can somehow build on them. As most fisherpeople know, if you blow the first cast to a waiting fish, the odds are good you’ll just scare it into hiding.

Kids aren’t much different. Even if it’s unintentional, when we set them up to fail they’ll often go into hiding and stop trying.

But there’s another factor at work here and any teacher who’s made this mistake is painfully aware of its reality. You only only get one chance to teach it right because most students will remember what they hear first–even if you immediately correct your mistake. In my real estate classes there are two terms for holding title to property that are really quite simple, but they are also very easy to mix up. The terms are “fee simple determinable” and “fee simple condition subsequent.” When I first started teaching them, I would occasionally accidentally reverse them. When that happened, the number of students who got the subsequent quiz question wrong dramatically increased no matter how hard I retaught the concept. It’s become a concept that I now teach very carefully and deliberately. I still rehearse that lesson in my mind before I teach it.

I do not ask any questions until I’ve been over both terms at least once. I will emphasize the importance of getting it right by subtly suggesting “This might be on the test.” This emphasis is called “raising the stakes” and it’s another way of engaging learners. but I definitely don’t invite the students to give me wrong information until they’ve heard it correctly at least once.

Teaching kids is an awesome responsibility and while I’m not inviting paranoia over the ways and means by which we do it, I am suggesting deliberation and a disciplined approach. Sometimes knowing the right question and when to ask it is more important than knowing the right answer!

(Note: While I do not usually use photos I’ve taken of the kids at school to illustrate my writing, I have Hannah’s parents permission for this one which also appeared as the cover photo on a recent edition of the Eastern Gazette.)



Nobody Taught Me…

I can figure this out!

A recent LMS (Learning Mangement Systems) newsletter had some fun with this statement. “I can’t use Facebook–nobody has taught me how.” For those of us in the business of education, it was a funny thought–at least initially. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t use Facebook because they haven’t been trained?

Of course there’s a not so funny aspect we’ll get to in a moment, but we chuckle because the “nobody has taught me” excuse is in fact a selective one. Given the addictive nature of Facebook use, most folks tend to jump in with both feet. You might occasionally hear somebody say he or she is not using Facebook because “I can’t be bothered…” But you aren’t likely to hear, “I’m not using Facebook because I don’t know how.” Grandma–who is anything but a technology whiz–is “facebooking” so she can see what the grandkids are doing.

The aspect of this that’s “not so funny” is the lack of critical thinking sometimes applied when things get so easy. Just because you can post almost anything on Facebook doesn’t mean you should. While that might seem obvious, to many it’s not. Unfortunately, once people learn how to type in the box or find things to share, the learning can stop because the desire to learn is diminished or perhaps even extinguished. Now it’s about the desire to share.

What we’re really talking about here is “engagement.” While there are a number of factors impacting whether or not a learner learns, one of the most powerful is his or her desire to learn. The “nobody has taught me” excuse is an attempt to remove responsibility from the learner and place it with the teacher. Kids are particularly adept at this. I hear it occasionally in a classroom when I’m subbing. My usual response to “Mr. Boomsma, we haven’t learned this yet…” is “Well, then I guess we’ll have to now.”

The elementary kids I work with are not supposed to be using Facebook, but I do know this much. They can figure out some complex computer games and software without much help (teaching). And I have caught six graders using a chat function that we don’t cover during class.  Why aren’t they complaining that we haven’t taught them how it works? I do not ever recall hearing a kid say, “Nobody has taught me how to play computer games.”

The will to learn is a big factor in the learning process. Whether I’m teaching kids or adults, one of the awesome moments happens when it becomes apparent the student is “turned on” and wants to learn. I have seen a strong desire to learn overcome limitations that range from a lack of resources to a perceived learning disability. I have said that my biggest challenge as an educator is to convince people they can learn things and it doesn’t change whether the student is five years old or fifty.

A second grader who recently brought a pile of books to read to me–everyone was about the Titanic and we spent nearly as much time with him telling me things about the sinking of the Titanic as we did reading about it. His enthusiasm was contagious and I found myself learning some things I didn’t know. I’m not sure what exactly got him so interested, but he is becoming quite the expert on the Titanic! Since as far as I know the Titanic is not part of second grade curriculum, nobody has taught him this.

But learning is not just about engagement. One of the things Facebook has accomplished is that at some level, it’s extremely easy to use. In this regard, the good news is the bad news, because there are legions of Facebook users who are simply typing some words in a box and clicking “post.” This is, of course, in Facebook’s best interest–speaking of engaged learners, you have to admire Facebook’s ability to figure out how to make their system work.  You don’t hear them saying, “No one ever taught us how to make this work.” They have figured out, for example, that by making some things difficult to learn people will remain gleefully unaware of how much they are contributing to Facebook’s interests, sometimes a great expense to themselves.

The lesson for those who would teach is that we, too, need to figure out how to make things easy to learn. One of my three classroom rules is “We will have fun learning.” I usually have to explain this doesn’t mean we’re going to be rolling on the floor laughing and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to work hard. But I believe we humans are “hard-wired” to learn–it’s instinctive and natural. The “fun” is in the achieving and the intrinsic rewards that accompany learning. Learning is about consequences. As a teacher, part of my job is to make sure my teaching doesn’t interfere with learning. Sometimes my job involves getting out of the way so the students can learn.


Five Minutes — Can you focus?

Well, actually it’s a little under five minutes. Most regular followers of my brain leaks and musings know that I’m a pretty big fan of Sir Kenneth Robinson. I’m going to ask you to spend five minutes with him–particularly if you’re an educator or involved in some way with the development of children.

Of late we’ve been hearing lots of discussion about things like “Core Curriculum” in public schools. Our governor recently issued an executive order “affirming Maine’s commitment to protecting local education control and student privacy rights.” It just may be healthy that we’re giving some thought to who “controls” what students learn.

At the other end of the spectrum, I encountered a man with what he thinks is a wonderful concept he calls “unschooling.” His solution to what he thinks are the fundamental problems with public education is to homeschool. Homeschooling is not a bad concept of itself, but in his home school there are no standards and kids (starting as young as preschool) only learn with they feel like learning. At a minimum, I think that he and his followers are at a doing a terrible disservice to their children. (Don’t get me started on this one… How rational is it to tell a five year old “just learn whatever you like, dear!” A “teacher” using that approach is only demonstrating what a poor teacher he or she is!)

My point is supposed to be that before we join the fray with firm opinions and too often a “don’t confuse me with the facts” approach to how and what we teach, we might spend five minutes trying to focus on this Ken Robinson video. In the interest of full disclosure and proper credit, I first received this from the blog http://classroomsandstaffrooms.com.

(Due to some technical challenges, I’ve removed the embedded video… you can find on site given above.)