Tag Archives: Learning theory

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.)

Minus 18 or Plus 2?

Let’s see… it’s been less than two weeks since the last day of school. In some ways it seems a lot longer. While I’m not quite ready to go back yet, I do miss the kids. I ran into one of the little guys in the store the other day… I confess it felt really great that he seemed so excited to see me. He was almost jumping up and down as he introduced me to his Dad as “one of the teachers from school.” When I asked him if he was ready to go back to school yet, he gave me a very enthusiastic “yes” that left me both happy and sad. I’ve often wished that the line between playing and learning was a lot more blurred than it is. Whenever I sub in a classroom I start the day by announcing three new rules that get added for the day. The second one is that we “have fun learning.” (A while back a critic of one of my adult courses commented, “I know you want the students to have fun and like you, but…” Since when is learning not compatible with enthusiasm and fun?)

Here’s a short TED talk by a woman who I think “gets it.” I would love to be in her class–wouldn’t you?


Make That Mistake!

read_together_400_clr_3409We were nearly to her classroom door when I complimented my third grade friend. We’d just read together–actually she read to me–and I thought she’d done quite well. She impressed me with her vocabulary when she replied that she was actually much more “fluent” when she read to herself. I of course asked why.

Her reply was about being self concious and therefore “embarassed” when she made a mistake reading outloud. I confess my reply was a straight shot from the hip, “Don’t you ever be embarassed over mistakes when you are reading with me. Mistakes are an important and natural part of learning. And they actually can be fun.”

Usually these conversations are more about how the mind works faster than the mouth, but for some reason her discomfort seemed wrong. Of course we should challenge others to do well and to a healthy extent avoid errors. But the fear of failure can be paralyzing.

Later the same day I ran into my “giggler” friend. A year ago she was reading to me and when she came to the word “briefcase” she read “beer case.” For reasons I still don’t understand, her mistake struck me very funny. She and I ended up with the giggles for longer than was probably appropriate. She still remembers that day and the mistake–fortunately in a happy way that makes us both smile. I think it’s important that we laughed at the mistake; we didn’t laugh at her.

Recent studies are showing that students perform better in school and felt more confident when they were told that failure was a normal part of learning, bolstering a growing body of research that suggests much of the same. When I’m working with adults, I find that an important part of the process is to create a “safe” learning environment where mistakes can be made and judgement gets suspended. To that end, I’ve adopted the “Learner’s Bill of Rights” developed by the folks at Trainer’s Warehouse. Consider two of the ten.

IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures.

While facilitators may search for a right answer, learners have the right to make mistakes. If one is unable to answer a question correctly, the instructor will not cause embarassment.


VII. The right to a jury of peers.

You are entitled to a classroom of peers who will not judge or jeer, but make you feel safe and supported when faced with new challenges.

We would do well to consider creating a safe learning environment for others and ourselves. I remember once being part of a team that suffered a major mistake. The team leader said, “Well, we won’t make that mistake again.” I replied, “Nope, we’ll make some different ones.” He was not amused.

Creating a safe learning environment is about a willingness to allow mistakes that is balanced with a desire to “do well.” It’s really about avoiding mistakes, not fearing or focusing on them.

(For copies of the Learner’s Bill of Rights, please contact Trainer’s Warehouse at 800-299-3770 or www.trainerswarehouse.com.)