My first day as a high school English teacher introduced me to 174 sophomores. I was only a few years’ older than they. I had an imposing desk waiting for me in each of the rooms I shuttled through. They filed into rows of uncomfortable chairs with writing arms attached. Blackboard. Mimeograph machine in the English office. No air conditioning. 16 mm films. Filmstrips.
Today I work mainly with adults. We all have laptops and tablets; I use computer slides and videos; we have access to the Internet. I also provide sessions from a studio, sitting in front of a blue screen—we use breakouts and chat rooms and such. All good stuff. Some see the new technologies as a boon to teachers. Others see them as a barrier to real learning.
I’d like to suggest that new technology streamlines access to information much as jet travel streamlines access to distant geographies, no more or less than that. I’m not a Luddite—the protesters who destroyed looms in 19th century England and serve as a standard for resistance to technology. Yet the greatest resource we have has no dependence on technology—whether we’re using filmstrips or TED© talks, our most abiding resource fills every class room and always has.
It’s our students. It took me a few years of teaching to get that.
The Innate Learner
Most teachers know this, at least intuitively. Too often they’re caught up in a system based on education-as-assembly line. Yet standardized teaching goes against not only our own experience but the science of learning as well.
One of the exciting trends in our time is increased research on learning and the human brain. We have thinkers like Gerry Harvey, Howard Gardner, Margaret Wheatley, and Daniel Pink who offer insight into how people think, interact, and learn. And it appears that the default setting for the human brain is, after all, to learn.
Once we accept that as innate, we can start to re-align our approach to make space for this powerful drive to learn. Though this drive is in everyone, it shows up differently. And we can remember that the root word for education, educare, does not mean to put into but to bring forth. That process of bringing forth involves several key features.
The Experts Are in the Audience
First, teachers do not know more than their students, they know differently. For all my education and learning, once I reframed my “box” for students away from I’m the expert to the experts are in the audience, all of our learning improved. It’s a place of humility and vulnerability for teachers, and it’s very powerful. In this context, all insights are equally valuable, and students validate their own learning by attaching it to their experience, not to mine. I can’t do that for them, but I can make it safe for them to do that for themselves.
How do we accomplish this? First, be comfortable with open questions. I try to avoid any question, or any statement, that implies there is one—and only one—correct answer. When students discover answers through their own inquiry, they own the answer.
My favorite, and most effective, science teacher, in the seventh grade, threw questions and experiments at us like an avalanche and turned us loose. He served as a coach, asking questions and nudging us toward useful possibilities rather than correcting us. We collaborated on a wild journey of blind alleys and insight. We, and he, were equals. We were much more comfortable with his amazing grasp of science when he was responding to our questions as an equal partner in exploration rather than lecturing. He even made a point of sitting with us, so he never talked down to us.
The Aptitude Trap
Second, find opportunities to forget assumptions about aptitude. After all, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Frank Zappa were poor students. We might consider, instead of s/he is a poor student, the perspective of I wonder what opportunity might open them up?
My friend Russ is a pretty conservative, “sit ‘em down and make ‘em learn” kind of guy. And one afternoon as we were talking about teaching (his wife and daughter are both teachers), he shared a story about how he learned to question his own assumptions.
In the sixth grade, his teacher assigned research projects and split the class into groups of six. Russ was given the five worst students in the class, three of whom had failed at least one grade (this was a while ago). The group came to class every day broadcasting boredom and edgy indifference. Russ went for broke and asked them what the most important issues were in the social studies assignment they’d been given:
“I assumed they would most likely greet me with either stony silence or a lot of sarcasm and horsing around designed to disguise their inability to answer the question, but I was amazed to find that they seemed to take my question seriously, and to be making a genuine effort to think about it.
“The other amazing thing was the way they continued to behave respectfully toward me and one another, and the clear pride they took in being taken seriously in this context. I really think they felt good about themselves as students, perhaps for the first time. I don’t know that our final product set the world on fire, but we produced something that was perfectly workmanlike, we stuck to the task to the end, and I think all of us enjoyed the process.”
I trained—and served—as a facilitator for TESA (Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement), which helps us understand how we hold poor performing students back by our assumptions that actually contribute to their poor performance. I know I had teachers who had low expectations of me because I’m shy and a strong kinesthetic learner, an unlikely combination that sometimes put me in just the wrong cubbyhole. When we can see our students’ differences as possible resources rather than as barriers, we’re on the right track.
Differences as a Resource.
Finally, and this was hard for me to learn, no two human beings on earth speak the same language or learn the same way. If you’re married, you know this. As Oscar Wilde said: Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken. I learned to accept that often times what I took for low or insufficient grasp of a lesson was no more complicated than a difference in preference. Some of us learn best in large groups, some in small teams, some alone. Some of us prefer lots of feedback, some broadcast Give me the problem and get the #$%^ out of my way!
A few years ago, I had an adult learner in a leadership class who shared his great-uncle’s favorite saying: Cada cabeza es un mundo, or Each human head is its own world. I’m very comfortable with ambiguity, others are not. I’m strongly intuitive (I have literally no S score on the MBTI©). Others need a secure anchor in facts and detail to feel comfortable making a leap of insight.
I always give my learners the opportunity to talk about how they learn. I’m delighted by their willingness—children small and large (adults)—to be candid about what they need in order to resonate with content. It turns out that, for most of them, ‘nobody’s ever asked me this before.”
Every room full of students is really a room full of learning generators. With or without chalkboards (or laptops), their drive for discovery abides. And one of the greatest pleasures of teaching is when that spark of learning takes hold, especially when the flame surprises us as it appears suddenly in someone we felt we weren’t reaching.