Tag Archives: Most Likely to Succeed

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.

What is the purpose of education?

In their book Most Likely to Succeed, Dr. Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write, “…people follow the assertion that ‘education is key’ with the concern that ‘our schools need to do much better.’ But few can answer the overarching question: ‘What is the purpose of education?’

First, I’ll narrow the focus by asking myself, what is the purpose of K-12 public education? In other words, for what purpose does K-12 public education exist?

To continue our genetic lineage, we procreate. To continue our national legacy, we educate. America is founded on and fueled by the American dream. It’s not just the freedom to pursue happiness; it’s the ideal that any citizen within our shores can achieve success and prosperity. If we fail to educate our youngest citizens, we will weaken their ability to achieve the American dream, which means we will weaken the very DNA of our country’s strength.

Our public education system is the means by which we make the American dream an achievable reality for our citizens. We invest in public schools in the hopes that our children will be educated well enough to live happy, successful lives while contributing to America’s prominent standing in the world.


Entering the conversation

A few weeks ago, I began reading The Global Achievement Gap by Dr. Tony Wagner. It was published in 2008, so I realize I’m eight years late to the table, but I’m still so glad I found this book. On just about every page, I’m tempted to write, “Amen,” “Yes,” or “Preach!”

What’s funny is that at the time this book was published, I was in my fifth year of teaching and feeling many, many of the emotions Dr. Wagner expresses he felt while in the classroom. How I wish I had read his book at that time in my career! Perhaps I would not have felt so alone in my professional frustrations.

Because of my admiration for Gap, I also purchased Most Likely to Succeed, which was written by Dr. Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. As I began highlighting questions they pose, I thought about how great it would be to enter the conversation too. Then I thought – I have a blog! I can enter the conversation!

In their Introduction, Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith mention that they “have found it invaluable in setting the tone for a discussion about education to ask participants to reflect on their school years. Specifically, we ask them to describe what aspects of their education had a profound positive impact on them” (4).

For me, it started in kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. Sapp was fun, energetic, and loved teaching. I don’t remember anything specific about that year. I’m sure I learned math and spelling, but that’s all faded into the blurred colors of childhood. What I do recall is the joy I felt going to school.

At my public high school I had several amazing teachers and an amazing administrator as well. I had Mrs. Pecor for Algebra II and AP Calculus. She was tough, tiny, and had a raspy smoker’s voice. I was afraid of her in the best possible way – I didn’t want to let her down. Her tough standards did not preclude a willingness to help, and I always felt supported. In this class, I felt challenged as an individual and learned the benefits of working hard on a seemingly impossible task. (Math was never my strong suit, yet earned a 4 on the exam. That’s a badge of honor for me!)

Mrs. Hartley was my AP Lang and AP Lit teacher, as well as my newspaper adviser. We read and discussed and wrote, and then we did it all again. Her classes were the only ones in which I discussed modern day issues through the lens of multiple genres. I enjoyed the creativity behind working on the school paper. As many other people report in Most Likely to Succeed, I too liked working on a collaborative project, being given adult responsibilities, and being challenged in my abilities.

My drama teacher, Ms. Schwarz, offered guidance, humor, support, and opportunities to be both myself and someone other than myself. We worked as groups and teams, learning to perform and how to manage pre-show jitters.

Mrs. Featherstone was an assistant principal at the time, and we formed a bond that has continued into my adulthood. She is working mom who was a teacher, assistant principal, and is now a National Board Certified Principal working on her Ph.D. Is it any wonder why she is a role model to me?

Reflecting on these teachers makes me realize something: the most profound positive impact on my education were these intelligent, hard-working, funny, giving, and talented women. They constantly challenged me and held up high expectations for me, but they were always there to support me as well. I didn’t want to let them down, but I didn’t fear failure. I knew they were on my side and there was a mutual respect for one another.

But it wasn’t like we all sat around singing kumbaya. They TAUGHT me. They made me think and write and calculate and act and learn. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have been the teacher I became without those teachers to show me the way.

And now I’ve entered this conversation! Next up is Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith’s question: “What is the purpose of education?” and trying to find a definition of what “constitutes real learning.”