Trust The Children

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What Is Teaching? What Is Learning?

I read the quote above recently. It is attributed to a past president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. 1 It crystalized something that has been running around in my mind for some time.

Have you read, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"? Have you seen the movie, "Happy Feet"? There are others of a similar theme. The masses make assumptions. An individual risks his reputation because he sees life a little differently from the masses. The individual is cast out of the group for the vision in his head, but persists. In the end, whether generally accepted or not, the truth of the new vision prevails.

Don't most people make assumptions about what education is and how it should be done? All of us do. Aren't most of those assumptions based on a subjective view of our own past experience, and not an objective view of what education should or could be? I think so. Sir Kenneth Robinson in his TED lecture on creativity points this out. He says that for most people education is a topic of passion, and not just another headline in todays paper.

Take a moment, if you will, and read this statement and think about it for a while... "Teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall." 1 Isn't this statement the generally accepted idea about eduction? Isn't it what we did, for the most part, when in school ourselves. We were sure it was education. We were sure it was learning. Isn't this what we believe constitutes "education"? But, what if it isn't?

What if true "education" is something different entirely? What about students being able to apply knowledge instead of just build an inventory of it? What about students being able "manipulate facts within some general framework"2 instead of just possess a passing knowledge of the "facts"? What if "teaching is enabling, knowledge is understanding and learning is the active construction of subject matter"3?

Organizing information, presenting it well, answering the questions of an enquiring mind and testing for ability to recall information, is what teaching is about. OK, I get that. But what is learning about? You mean teaching and learning might be two completely separate things? Yes!

Research is bringing to the fore, more about what a learner is doing when actual learning is taking place. While this may be an over simplification, 1) learners are extending and revising prior knowledge, 2) learners are connecting meaning from something they already know, to this new thing they are considering and 3) learners are making their learning concrete when they apply it to actual problem solving situations. 4

Notice that learning is something that takes place inside the learner and NOT in the chasm between the mouth of the teacher and ears of the learner. It happens inside our children. If this is true, it has profound implications about what it means to educate our children.

One is summarized by Pat Montgomery, educator and founder of Clonlara Schools, "The work of a child is play." Play, from 0 to 12 or so, allows our children the time they need to draw conclusions, make connections and practice applying what they are learning, all the while preserving natural curiosity. Needless busy work in the lives of our children, often precludes this, as they are so totally engaged in the "Teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall" process. (I think this is why I have shied away from home schooling curriculum for the most part, especially in the younger years. They seem so much to me a replication of the busy work in the system, making the home no different than the school when it comes to having time for "learning".)

One of my favorites is taught by the Arbinger Institute, "Children learn more from watching other people learn, than from watching other people teach." 5This again, supports the idea that we are well served when we assume that learning takes place inside a learner, and quite often independent of the direct "teaching" of the teacher. As a father of eleven, my children have each earned a "doctorate in Life Lessons" observing the mistakes and successes of their Dad. This is been a lively classroom for them, in real time, living technicolor and often surround sound.

When active learning is taking place, it is often the result of a "teacher" creating an environment where personal discovery can take place. Our children may need facilitators and enablers more than "teachers" in much of what they do as they learn. Even more encouraging for average parents like most of us, is that people who know a lot, don't necessarily make the best facilitators or enablers.

If we as parents can empty our bowls of the cold, old soup of our past, we make room for a new hot delicious soup to warm us on a winter day. Pouring the inviting warm new soup over the old, only gives us luke warm, diluted soup. However, an all new bowl of soup consists of the assumption that learning and teaching are independent of one another, that teaching may not be telling and that learning may not be lecturing, something I feel we really knew all along, but were afraid to taste.


1- Education for Judgment, C. Roland Christensen, xii
2- (David Cohen, "Teaching Practice: Plus ca Change" Ibid, p xii)
3- Ibid, p. xii
4- Ibid, p. xiv
5- Arbinger Institute, The Choice in Teaching and Education, p. 8,

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Reinforcements Are Coming!

Have you ever watched the movie "Gettysburg"? On a whirlwind trip of 9000+ miles in 27 days, we found ourselves traveling north from Washington DC, into Pennsylvania toward Gettysburg. We had purchased the VHS tapes of this movie and were watching it in the motorhome as we were driving. (Actually I was doing the driving and watching it in my mind as the kids watched it on the two TV's we had in the motor home) A scene I have watched over and over again is about day one.

The Union Calvary has advanced to the town of Gettysburg. The main body of the Union army is too far behind them. In the meantime the Confederate armies are also converging there and must be stopped. The army that arrives first obtains the "high ground" giving them strategic superiority over the battlefield. Union Brigadier General John Buford risks deploying his meager force of 2000+ mounted calvary along two major roads, in an attempt to lure 9000+ confederate soldiers into battle. If they fall for the trap, it would divert them from the primary objective of gaining the high ground. It is a calculated risk made by Buford that if he can create enough confusion and rile up the Confederates they will chase his troops back through the city. If the Union Army shows up soon enough, they have the chance to get to the high ground, for the battle advantage. Buford has no way of knowing how soon they will arrive, so the risk is great. It may be an effort that is all for naught.

As the battle ensues, in the movie, Buford positions himself on the high tower of a church in Gettysburg. On one side of the tower, he observes the battle, then moving to the other side of the tower he searches frantically with his binoculars for the Union Army Reinforcements who are still not in sight. At one point when the battle is turning very very badly for the Union and the overwhelming forces of the Confederate armies are chasing his forces as they retreat, he sees the first column of the Union Army coming online. It means that reinforcements have arrived and that the Union can immediately position themselves on Big and Little Round Top, and other high places with complete command of the main battlefield. This left the Confederates only one good option and that was to try and flank the Union forces, since a move up the middle would now be very difficult if not impossible. And the rest, is as they say, "is history". The Union won the battle of Gettysburg.

I remember as we drove into Gettysburg proper and I played out in my mind, the battle that had just played on the TV.Tears ran down my cheeks in empathy for Buford and his calvary. Brave men, risking everything, with impossible odds, hoping to buy enough time for reinforcements to come. They did come. The Union won the Battle of Gettysburg because of the courage of a few.

The home schooling battle is in many ways not as dire as this battle was. Yet often the months of January and February can feel as bleak as war for home schooling parents. Sometimes we need a "pick-me-up". A reminder of why we do this. Well, we got a pick-me-up" today. Our oldest daughter, the Fulbright Scholar, who is finishing her second masters at the University of Chicago, felt the need to blog about her experience as a home schooled child which led to her experience as "not a home schooled child" which then led to her returning to finish her "High School experience" as a home school child again. Her written memories of that time, reflect the learning curve we were going through as parents in the home school process.

I am so grateful that Allison on her own, finally landed home where the high ground is, instead of in the system where for some kids, the battle is often much like "Picketts Charge" on day three at Gettysburg, a disaster.

Here is the link, take a look for yourself. Public School teachers often encourage one another when their job gets bleak. This is our attempt to encourage you. Enjoy!

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Context Can Create More Meaning

I had a great teaching experience a few weeks ago. It reminded me again how powerful teaching can be when we are able to create context for what we are teaching. What do I mean "creating context"?

I was asked to train a bunch of scouts about knots and ropes. For anyone familiar with scouting, nothing gets a yawn and "do I hafta?" more than this topic. They have done it a million times. For boys whose dexterity is still developing, the challenge of making their fingers twist the rope just right isn't often confidence inducing. What came to my mind was a movie clip from the beginning of the movie "Vertical Limit" where 4 climbers lose their lives when safety knots, equipment and ropes proved insufficient to protect them. As the boys watched this "intense" scene, and witnessed bodies falling and people dying, a new found appreciation developed within them. After a few seconds of silence at the conclusion of the clip, I asked a question, "So how important are knots and ropes?" One scout looked up and said simply, "Life and death, that's how important."

With that, I said, "Then lets get into our groups and begin practicing the six knots you need to know for this course." Over the next 20 minutes, you have never seen more intensity, commitment and focus on knots. What had been mundane and boring, had now taken on more life and meaning. The difference? Context. They now saw knots and ropes in context of what can happen when they fail, when knots are not sufficiently or correctly tied. With that as a backdrop, they not only wanted to master knots for themselves, but also master them so they could adequately teach them to others. They began to realize that the lives of others might literally hang in the balance, if something as simple and plain as a bowline wasn't tied correctly.

Since this experience I have given much more attention to asking myself the question, "How can I could help students learn better identifying what truly might hang in the balance when considering this topic."

As I ask myself this question more frequently in my teaching, I am finding more answers. My excitement for "impact" teaching is increasing.

As in many other elements of teaching, the home schooling environment has as much opportunity, if not more than the public environment, for fashioning learning experiences of this kind. It might also be, that in the home, there is more freedom to ponder and quietly consider the deeper meaning of a learning experience. Consider for a moment how context can create more meaning.