Category Archives: Learning

What constitutes “real learning”?

There’s one last question posed in the introduction of Most Likely To Succeed to which I would like to respond. Following closely on the heels of “What is the purpose of education,” Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith state, “Few can define what constitutes real learning.”

Five years ago, my definition of “real learning” would likely have been very different than the one I’ll give today. Why? Because five years ago I was a high school teacher who didn’t have any children. Now, as the mother of a 5 year old and 2.5 year old, I’ve witnessed learning in its purest moments, which has influenced my concept of learning in the teenage years.

An anecdote: At seven months old, my daughter could sit up on her own. One day I watched her hold a lightweight plastic ball above her head. She stared at the ball for about 20 seconds before lowering her arm, and then repeated the action a few more times. I realized that I was watching a milestone moment happen in real time. New pathways were forged in my daughter’s brain as I stood there, amazed.

Let’s take that moment and talk about the process of learning I observed. First, in order for this milestone to occur, she had to already have mastered the skill of sitting up on her own. In other words, this new skill did not occur in a vacuum; it had to occur once other skills were mastered.

Second, Z had selected the appropriate tool with which to learn this skill. If I left a bunch of bowling balls laying around, Z would not have been successful and would likely have become frustrated. (Not to mention upset when mommy got sent to jail for leaving bowling balls around.)  The appropriateness of the tool allows learning to occur. 

After she lifted the ball, Z had time to observe and think about what was happening. Yes, this only took 20 seconds, but those were a critical 20 seconds. What would have happened had I interrupted her as soon as she lifted the ball into the air? I’m sure she would have become distracted and not really processed what she was doing. It’s important to provide time for learners to observe and think without being interrupted. 

Finally, Z had the opportunity to repeat the step several times, immediately following her first real moment of discovery. Repetition leads to mastery and embeds the skill in one’s thinking process or skill set.

There are other factors that played a role in this moment that I think have implications in our classrooms. One, nothing else exciting was going on in that moment. In other words, the environment was such that she could focus on something at her own pace and in an uninterrupted fashion. She felt safe. There was intrinsic motivation to learn this new skill. She was curious. And of course, she received positive feedback from me once she noticed me standing there.

 So, what do I think constitutes “real learning”? I think real learning occurs at the crossroads of ability and challenge. It occurs when learners have the tool that enables them to develop the new skill. This tool might something tangible, like a microscope, or it might be something intangible, like a new equation. Real learning occurs when the learner is motivated, focused, calm, and given time to observe, think, and reflect, both in the moment and through repetition of the new skill.

If/When I go back into the classroom, I cannot help but be influenced by my new perceptions of learning that have been informed by observing my own young children and reading professional and scientific studies on the topic. I will cut back on quantity and make quality my North Star of Planning. My classroom was always “homey,” but I will go further and add “calming” to my interior design plans. I will designate more time to repetition and reflection, and I will do a better job of trying to find the crossroads of ability and challenge for each individual student. And I’ll always be there to provide positive feedback, which has always been my favorite part of teaching and parenting.