Sunday, June 14, 2020

Learning to Teach; Learning to Learn: Part I

Through my years in education, I've puzzled a lot about what it means to be a learner. I was a mediocre student in school. I was bored, I was lost, I was bored and lost. Not in all grades or in all content areas, but I can mark the "good" years and the less memorable ones.

First grade. Mrs. DeVane spanked me during nap time because I was playing bears with one of my classmates. I got spanked after recess because I said something to kids who were fighting that they should stop fighting. Those kids did not get spanked. 

Second grade. My teacher, Miss Ambergy (not sure if that's spelled correctly), was a twin.

Third grade. Miss Weeks was not much of a disciplinarian.

Fourth grade. Miss Gibson was all about discipline. She would toss desks if they weren't neat and you'd find your stuff on the floor when you came to class in the morning. That happened to me. Once. We learned about Florida history and social studies; she'd grimace a lot and then talk about what wasn't in the books. I adored her.

Fifth grade. Meh.

Sixth grade. I sat in the first seat in the row closest to the right wall, so I could turn in my seat to read when my work was done. I got mostly Bs. His comments were all about the fact that all I seemed to want to do was read.

Junior high. Nearly disastrous on so many levels. I was completely lost in math and Mr. Anderson (7th) wrote and talked so fast I had no idea what was going on so decided I was terrible in math and just gave up. Mrs. Savage (8th) in English gave me a hard time about not returning a book and my mother nearly shredded her. The one time I can recall my mother having any involvement in any my classes, except for the time in elementary school she had to come to get the dog because he followed me to school--we lived about 3 blocks away.

High school. I passed. Mrs. Hawkins, 10th grade English, challenged me to do better and I rewrote a paper to show her I could do better and mostly because she expressed some interest in me and my ability. My senior year was mostly electives since I needed only half a credit to graduate and, in those days, kids were not allowed to graduate early. I hung out with my friend Tina the night before the ACT and SAT, which we'd signed up to take on the same day. What was anyone thinking? We were both a bit hung over at the start of the first test. I scored well enough to get at least one partial scholarship offer. I passed the English CLEP test so didn't have to take ENG101 or ENG102 in college; I think I was sober for that test.

I do remember other teachers from both junior high and high school, and for various reasons. We moved when I was in the 9th grade so I changed schools in the middle of 9th grade. That was fun.

I learned a lot about being a student, though not necessarily what anyone would have wanted me to learn. 

Learning to Teach
Let's fast forward a bunch of years. I finished college with a degree in English and American Studies, got a job and then a different job while I decided whether or not to take the LSAT to go to law school, and then found myself working as a systems analyst/programmer for about a decade. At this point I was living in the Hudson Valley in New York and one of the deacons at my church (I'd changed and grown up a lot since high school. . . and college), who worked at The King's College which was then in Briarcliff Manor, asked me if I'd be willing to teach a programming class. Cool. Sure.

It was one of the hardest things I've ever done because I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I prepared. I read the book, I look at syllabi from previous versions of the course, I put together a lesson plan. And within the first 10 minutes of the very first class, I knew I was in trouble and that I would have to rethink everything about how to teach and how to make sure that students could learn.

That is when I started thinking about what it means to learn and be a learner.

Because I do like to do research, I did a lot of research. I went back to the deacon, who was also the department chair, and asked for any books he could recommend to help me figure out how to teach. I asked colleagues.

And I rewrote my lesson plans because the most important thing I learned is that I had to view the content and the learning objectives from the perspective of the students. I had to recognize that they came with either no or limited background knowledge OR that their background knowledge did not fit into my comfortable view of what they should know and how they should know it.

That was a rough semester for those students and for me. We made it. I was asked to teach another course and I did. And eventually I was asked to join the faculty full-time so I took a 52% pay cut to do that, and we all managed and I was exhilarated and exhausted because this was the most amazing thing I'd ever done. All the while I learned more about the craft of education, learning as much from my students as I did from the throng of experts whose books I read.

Learning to Learn
I thought this might be a really deep project because I think too many of us forget that students need to be taught how to learn or that the processes they develop as they figure out learning might be adapted as they encounter topics that are harder or more complex than others.

I remember the freshman who was planning to major in PE and who told me she hated to read. I completely understood that because most of my high school teachers wearied me with the way they insisted on teaching literature and I liked to read. I think it was towards the end of her sophomore year she told me she was amazed by how much she was reading. I know she preferred video games and other stuff to reading, but she no longer hated reading. That was a win.

She is just one of dozens of students who taught me about the complexities of helping students learn, and learn to learn.

I've worked with many teachers who wonder why students haven't "learned" when they've gone over something on the board, given students worksheets, had students complete and review those worksheets, and then not be able to do the same kind of work on a test. I've heard teachers bemoan that students haven't learned something they just taught them the day before as though exposing students to something--explaining and demonstrating it--is a direct path to learning.

There is plenty of research about learning and I'm happy to share some of the resources I found, though most of them were dreary academic articulations of the same things over and over again. So I decided to be less rigorously academic and just ask some folks how they learn things after I thought about how I learn something new, especially something I really didn't want to learn.

And because this blog post is already long, I'll continue my thoughts about learning to learn in another and perhaps you'll take a few minutes to reflect on your own about how you learn--and by that I mean how you go through the process of not knowing something or not knowing how to do something to being reasonably confident in your knowledge and/or your ability.

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