Tag Archives: classroom environment

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.

The First Ingredient

On my desk rests a picture taken of me calling the roll of my very first class, on my very first day of teaching. I am always surprised at how calm and self-assured I look. I recall my hands shaking as I held my pen, yet my arm appears steady and determined as I point to one of the many seated heads all pointed in my direction. Stomach churning like a washing machine, thus began my quest to [James Earl Jones voice] “Make A Difference.” [Echo, echo, echo]

Over the next 8 years, I was a high school English teacher in Virginia (1 year) and Florida (7 years). My life was my work. My colleagues were my friends. My students were my kids. But then my own kid was born, and I haven’t been a classroom teacher since that day a little over three years ago.

Though not in the trenches, I’ve tried to stay on the field of my profession. I worked as a curriculum designer for a non-profit, sending teachers lesson plans and materials they needed but couldn’t find the time to create themselves. I served on a state committee linked to Race to the Top, meeting some of the brightest, most professional educators in Florida. I’ve presented at several conferences, hosted webinars, published articles, and served on the board of the Florida Council of Teachers of English.

My role/job/persona as stay-at-home mom has afforded me an insider’s outside perspective on the tumultuous shifting landscape of the world of education. I liken it to standing on the moon, watching Pangaea break apart. Slow, painful, ultimately unstoppable, and (hopefully) leading to evolution.

If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve heard people tell me I’m lucky not to be teaching right now, I’d probably never have to teach again. My heart always lurches at these comments. I don’t want my friends to find other careers. I don’t want teachers and politicians at each other’s throats. I don’t want students caught in the brackish, backwash waters of tidal waves of change. I don’t want to curse the darkness. I want to light a candle. I want to Make A Difference.

Thus, the idea of Teacher Soup was born. [Echo, echo, echo]