Tuesday, August 16, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 3. The Act of Learning

Photo by Tim Wilhelmus
This post is part three in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#3- We can transform the act of learning from Solitary and Independent to Collaborative and Social.

The product of learning is highly personal. We each have our own learning journeys, our own prior knowledge, our own deeply-held opinions based on our environments and experiences. We also are each uniquely wired with genetic pre-dispositions, talents, gifts, struggles and limitations. I cannot deny this. I fundamentally agree that each learner's path (and subsequent worldview) is unlike any other learner's in terms of its particulars.

That said, the act of learning is highly social. We learn best when we challenge our ideas through exploration and experience with others. The act of reading is a social act that includes the author; the act of watching a movie is a social act that includes the director's vision, the actors' interpretations, the editor's choices; even the act of metacognition is a communing with the self that requires objectivity over subjectivity.

We are social creatures who understand the world in terms of others. Our language locks us into an assumption of otherness. Choose any adjective to describe yourself, and it only has meaning in relationship to others. I am tall, intelligent, or distracted in comparison to others. Thus, real learning involves a social context, even when we do the learning alone behind a locked door.

My students read a novel, and by themselves, they manage to have a social learning experience that might include the author and themselves, but also includes their parents' ideas, the ideas that are currently floating around their physical and virtual social networks, and the lessons they've picked up in the media. Already, their learning is done in a social context. But then, I ask them to share their ideas in a class discussion, and they discover that the learning conclusions they had come to on their own are very different from the learning conclusions that their classmates have come to. Pretty soon, we are embroiled in a passionate discussion that is shaking several people's foundations, including mine.

The energy in the room escalates quickly, and it is clear that we are hitting on some core beliefs. Tectonic plates inside our brains are shifting, which feels uncomfortable, but also very real. We are learning from each other, even if at the end of the day we have to agree to disagree. This open exchange of ideas is the kind of learning that doesn't end with the bell. It carries over into lunch, then the class discussion board, then my students' lives. These are the learning moments that we revisit later in the year.

The problem is that in too many classrooms, the act of socializing is stymied at every turn. We ask kids to shut down their natural tendency to want to share their thoughts, and implicitly, we suggest that their thoughts are not welcome in the learning environment called school. We de-value one of the most fundamental aspects of learning as disruptive, dishonest, and/or frivolous. We insist that our students disconnect from their personal networks when given a learning task at school, when in the rest of their lives it is their personal networks that lend vitality and support to their learning. We too often assume that students who help one another with assigned work are taking the easy way out, instead of commending them for problem-solving together. And we fall victim to the destructive assumption that when a kid is texting or instant messaging with others, he or she cannot be engaged with the work at hand.

Managing social learning isn't easy for all teachers, but learning socially feels really easy for kids. Social learning requires that teachers let go of the microphone and let students learn from each other. It means that learning is open-ended, instead of narrowly prescribed. The collaborative environment drives learning because it challenges the individual to see things from different perspectives. It also allows students to benefit from the collective experiences of the group. Perhaps most importantly, though, a collaborative environment teaches students to value and take responsibility for their own thinking, instead of blindly accepting the authority of others.

When I think about this, I imagine moving from a classroom in which students are expected to think, act and be judged alone (poor Johnnie sweating over a worksheet, hoping to check the right box) to a classroom in which the students and teacher are working together to solve problems and grow through the process. A friend of mine tweeted recently that school should be more like CSI and less like Jeopardy. I believe we can make this happen.


  1. This really caught my attention and interest as I spend a lot of time pondering how I am going to do this if and when I get back into the classroom. It is certainly a different approach then I ever experienced as a student or a teacher. The idea of shifting to this style of instruction/classroom experience both terrify and excite me at the same time. A completely worthwhile leap into personal growth!

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I think you hit on a big factor: we struggle to make this a reality because our models for this type of learning are few and far between. Making this kind of change across education is going to take a collective will to do so. The more meaningful examples we create, the faster the change will come.