Learning vs Teaching

Do you ever write a blog post and leave it in “drafts” for so long… you forget your wrote it? That happened with this post. This post was initiated last spring and completed today with some additions.

For too long now, we have equated “learning” with the “result of being taught.” I’m not refuting the fact that we can learn from great teachers… in fact, that’s not my point at all. Teachers make a significant impact in whether students have an opportunity to learn or not in a school environment.

Rather, the point I want to make is that, for too long, we have equated learning with consuming what has been delivered TO learners. Traditional schooling has tried to make learning a passive activity, and I feel the damage we’re doing to children is resulting in generations of people who cannot think for themselves. Additionally, they have a difficult time learning anything that is new or unfamiliar – if a problem is put in front of them that doesn’t resemble a problem they’ve already seen, most students will struggle.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of educators talking about how we need to help students learn “how to learn.” I vehemently disagree. Children come to us as innate learners. If anything, most schooling conditions children to turn off their learning brains and substitute with their compliance/consumer brains. If you think you have students who need to be taught how to learn… you’re wrong. They just need help reprogramming themselves to actually learn, and that requires removing almost everything they have been conditioned to do in a traditional school environment.

Learning isn’t memorizing something and then performing on a test. If you disagree with me, pull out a test from one or two months ago and give it to your students. Most of them will not be able to pass this test, even if they aced it before. Now, if those same students created something through building, baking, composing, painting, etc. – something where the learning was meaningful, my guess is that they would be able to replicate (and most likely improve) their creations over and over again.  

When I speak to other educators about learning, they usually agree… except when it comes to facts and skills they strongly believe must be TAUGHT.

EXAMPLE: I am constantly asked how I TEACH my students to read, considering I do not focus on teaching and drilling sight words, phonemic awareness, etc.
 
I usually answer, “I don’t TEACH my students to read.”
 
I get the same questions when it comes to math… “How do they learn math if you don’t practice math facts?” *
 
And the question, especially from other educators, “How will your students learn to read, learn their math facts (etc.) if you don’t TEACH them?”
 
Yet… my students DO learn to read. They do learn their math facts, and so, SO much more!
 
How is it at all possible that the students in my classroom are reading, are applying math facts to actual math problems that they find (not necessarily problems I give them to solve)?
 
The answer is simple, and it’s one we’ve forgotten over years – nearly a century really- of delivering information to kids to “learn.” Consuming information that is delivered from a teacher is not LEARNING. 
 
When I memorize a bunch of stuff that someone else decides is important for me to know, that process takes one of the most important facets of learning out of the learners hands– the agency of the learner.
 

Human beings learn about the world around them when they’re curious… when they see a need to know and understand something… and then want to USE that newly found knowledge/skill. Good teachers know this and help provide an environment where kids are able to learn and pursue those things that make them curious. Master teachers know how to expose children to new experiences – those they may not discover on their own – to create new opportunities for learning to occur. 

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

 
When WE (educators) decide what students should learn, it becomes a chore. Curiosity lessens. And the opportunity to actually use that new knowledge is rarely provided outside an artificial environment.
 
Case in point… I have observed years and years of children sitting in science class “learning” from a textbook. THAT is not science! That’s reading comprehension. When you have never practiced actual science and only read about it… that is not learning science.
 
In discussions with other educators, I often hear things along the lines of “Well, if I don’t explain it to them first, how will they learn it?” This line of thinking misses the beauty of true learning. Ask any adult what they remember the most from high school. I guarantee it won’t be anything they were “taught” and memorized for a test. Delivered information resides in our short-term memory if we don’t do anything beyond memorizing it. We KNOW this… it’s not new to teachers. We learn that memorization is the lowest order of thinking. So why do we still concentrate more in this area in education than the others? Short answer: it’s the quickest and easiest to test. Efficiency for the win (or not). The longer answer is much more complicated.
 
I’ve written several posts like this before with explanations about what learning IS and what it IS NOT.  So have a lot of other people. I’ll add some to comments and welcome your additions as well! 
 
So to get back to my original example (and reason for writing this post)…
The answer to the questions I get from educators who see what we do at Anastasis Academy  – and wonder how on earth my K/1s learn how to read, write, understand math, etc.  -without teaching via traditional methods educators are used to seeing –  is THIS:
 
I don’t teach kids to read.
I don’t teach kids to write.
I don’t teach kids to memorize math facts… or vocabulary… or any of those other delivered items/standards to which we have clung so tightly in traditional education.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they are curious.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to learn to read.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to make sense of numbers.
 
(I could go on, but I think you get the picture.)
 
We do not drill phonics or math facts. We read all the time. We talk about letters, sounds, word endings, rhyming words, patterns, etc. IN THE CONTEXT OF WHAT WE ARE LEARNING. Always.
 
Let me emphasize that…
Yes, sometimes we’ll stop and talk about how verbs in the past tense sound like they end in a “t,” but the patterns we see in our books are “-ed.” We remark about this pattern every time we see it, and then we also start noticing it in our writing.
Pretty soon, the students start to think and edit themselves in their writing of past tense verbs. It makes sense to them, because it comes up in the context of what they’re already doing. These types of little mini or “pop out” lessons happen all the time, but the most important part is this: it’s always in the context of what we’re learning. I cannot stress this enough.
 
So if you ask me how I teach my kids to read if I don’t focus on all the traditional 20th/21st century methods of teaching reading, I will tell you…
 
I don’t teach them to read. They LEARN to read.
You can substitute any other concept/skill in the above sentences, because the emphasis is always on LEARNING, not teaching.
 
 
 (My class and I blog at architectsofwonder.edublogs.org… we share a lot of what we do and how we learn there. We also tweet from @TeamBaldwin and would love to hear from you!)

*Two of my “learning and math” posts that are relevant:

We Don’t Need Badges for Reading

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(c) 2016 Michelle K. Baldwin (all rights reserved)

My students love to read… and I don’t exaggerate when I say “love.” They adore books of all kinds, and they are excited for any time of the day that includes a book. This love for reading has come from a very carefully cultivated classroom environment where they have access and abundant choice in reading. (I can’t take all the credit, though. For many of them, that love of books is also nurtured greatly at home. My goal as their teacher is to help that love continue to grow.)

When I want them to do some research about the topics that interest them, I pull as many books as I can from our own little library and spread them across the tables in our classroom. We read picture books together. We read books with accompanying CDs and songs. There’s a great mix of non-fiction and fiction available to them. Reading is not a chore in this classroom – it’s a right that feels like a gift.

My emergent readers have access to the same books that my developing and fluent readers have. Sometimes they choose books that they cannot yet read (emphasis on “yet”), and sometimes they choose books that might be considered too easy. What I see is a continued love for books and continued progress in where they started when they first came to this classroom in the fall.

Earlier in the year, we were very excited to get an app on our iPads that brought us access to even more books. The kids could search for a keyword, and many titles showed up in the results. When we needed to do some investigating in our inquiry block and didn’t have enough books on each topic for individual research, this app helped fill a void. I was very pleased and often tweeted about how happy I was with this app*.

Then something changed. All of a sudden, my kids wanted to read on this app all the time. They were quietly chattering amongst themselves about how many books they had been reading, how much they read over the weekend… but something seemed “off” to me.

This past Monday, one of my little girls was in tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until she was finally able to tell me that she didn’t get the Mother’s Day badge. I asked her what she was talking about, and the other kids showed me their badges page in the app. Sometimes, you get a badge just for reading on a special day. I explained to her that it was ok that she didn’t get a badge for reading on that day… and that the badges don’t matter at all to me. She told me that she had spent the day with her family and not on her iPad… and I explained to her that it was a better thing to be doing than reading for the purpose of getting a special badge.

On top of that exchange, I heard my students’ conversations change. Instead of being excited about what they had learned from reading, as had been the case before, now they were all talking about which badges they received.

I brought them all to the center of the room and asked them what was going on. I questioned, “Why are we reading books?” Some of them answered, “because we like reading and because we learn a lot.” But then the responses changed, too. They started to talk all about the badges- how they liked getting more badges and how important that is. One of them even mentioned how you can page through all of the books in the app to trick the app into thinking you’ve read the book… and then you get MORE BADGES.

They could tell from the look on my face how disappointed I was. There was a bit of silence for a while, and then one of the 7 year olds started to say, “Guys, I think we forgot about why we read. Badges aren’t important.” Not everyone agreed with him. My solution was to tell them that we will continue to use the app for research, but that’s it. If we’re reading just to get a badge, then we’re reading for all the wrong reasons. If the badge mania continues, we’re going to delete the app. 

Just like that… my students’ motivation to read – because they love reading and want to learn more – flipped like a switch. This is what happens every single time we apply extrinsic motivation to something we want to encourage. EVERY. TIME. I’ve taught long enough to see cycles of rewards for reading… or learning to play the recorder… or learning multiplication tables… whatever you want to add to the list. You might help a kid memorize something or change a behavior, but extrinsic rewards always fail on a long-term basis.

I’m not the only person to write about this…

Pernille Ripp has written extensively on reading motivation here, here, and here – These posts are very specific to reading logs, but make a similar point. (If you’re not reading her blog, please do. The posts on reading instruction alone will be well worth your time.)

Alfie Kohn wrote a great post (amongst many) about The Risk of Rewards… but most directly about this topic in A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs.

As I spoke with Kelly Tenkely this morning about this blog post I needed to write about reading incentives, she recommended a book called Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I haven’t yet read this book, but I can guarantee that badges (or pizza coupons) are not going to be the solution to what’s happening in reading instruction and motivating kids to read.

Larry Ferlazzo has an entire curated list dedicated to posts he and others have written about the failure of extrinsic rewards in education. Take the time to read these!

Honestly, I could have just posted links to the above posts and the book recommendation and not even written THIS post… however, there’s a story here. I saw firsthand what happened to my littles when they were incentivized with something other than reading itself. They already loved reading… but then their focus changed for the worse. I have some “badge damage” to undo with a few of my kids.

*I’m not blaming the makers of this particular app, and I’m not using this blog post to call them out publicly. They are providing what scores of other teachers (unfortunately) want.

Here’s what I want:

  1. Get rid of the badges. ENTIRELY.
  2. Create a graphic of a bookshelf within your app to show kids which books they’ve already read (I know there’s a scrollable section where they can see what they’ve read, but the virtual bookshelf would make it easier to see the sum total.)
  3. DO NOT CREATE POINTS OR BADGES FOR THE NUMBER OF BOOKS ON THE VIRTUAL BOOKSHELF.
  4. Continue to provide great choices for the kids to read… because ultimately, that’s what will keep us reading.

If none of my suggestions are possible, then consider giving teachers the option to turn off the badges. We don’t need them, and I’m not putting my students in a situation where badges are an option anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you made it all the way to the end, you can give yourself 10,000 make-believe points as a reward. *wink*

A Call for Must Reads

October Think-About:

If you compiled a list of  “must reads” for educators –  books, articles, blog posts, etc. – what would you include?

Sometimes, I think to myself, “If only they could read [ insert title here ], maybe that would help them wrap their minds around these challenging ideas/philosophies.”

Think of the conversations we could have if we were all speaking with some common background information.

As I struggle to be patient and help others see that we have to change the way we “do school,”  I think about some of what I’ve read recently, and I want to share. A great example:

Jeff Utecht mentioned in a recent post:

“I have come to hate the phrase ’21st Century’ whatever: Learner, Thinking, Teacher, Skills… We’re 9 years (depending on how you count) into the 21st Century and we’re still calling for 21st Century things. I’m sorry, we’re in it [my emphasis]! These are just skills! They are just what we should be doing…”

After I read Jeff’s post, I said aloud, “EXACTLY!”  We keep talking about 21st Century as if it’s some far-off, future place and time. But it isn’t. It’s NOW.

I quoted Jeff today, and some of my colleagues laughed at themselves, because they also were thinking of the future. I pointed them to Jeff’s blog and told them it was something they needed to read.

So what about you?

  • What are the enlightening “reads” for you?
  • How did reading that book/article/blog change your thinking? your teaching? your direction?
  • How have you shared that information with your learning community?


Share with me your “must reads” in comments (I’ll add mine there, too!), and then I’ll compile a list for my next post.