Today’s Learning Philosophy

Dear Teachers,

Some of you know that many (MANY!) years ago, I was an Early Childhood teacher. In teacher school, I of course studied various teaching and learning philosophies and theories. Those theories led me to believe, as a brand-new preschool teacher, that “children learn by doing,” and I always had active classrooms with centers-based learning that provided children the opportunity to play and explore. For example, if the children were learning about health, I set up a mini-hospital in the “home living” center, and gathered ace bandages, stethoscopes, needle-less syringes, etc. and let the kids have a great time. And they did have a great time! My students would probably still tell you, if they remembered me at all, that their preschool experience was a positive one, they felt great about coming to school, and they had terrific 4-year-old self-esteem. I was very young.

What’s missing there, you may have noticed, is that although I set up the environment for “a great experience,” I’m not sure I could honestly say that my students LEARNED all they could have. I went to college before there was such a huge emphasis on standards-based education (or maybe I was asleep the day they covered that), and I initially taught in private school situations where the word “rigor” just never came up. I’m happy to say that my teaching style and learning philosophy have both evolved quite a bit over the years. They both look a lot like George Couros’ (2016) illustration of learning:


I might have sampled a bit of Behaviorism in my early days of teaching, too, but that system of rewards and punishments went out the window when I had my own children (yet another Blog Post for Another Day). I am definitely NOT a behaviorist. This view was confirmed when I read Moore’s Three Views of Behaviorism (2013), but it was having kids that taught me something very profound that I was aware of at only a very superficial level pre-motherhood: People Are Different. I know: you’re shocked, right? Everyone learns, processes, responds, develops, reacts in hugely different (and sometimes completely unexpected) ways. And that’s for kids who grow up in the same family and originating from the same gene pool! Add to the mix a wide variety of human experiences, good and bad, and it seems there would be an infinite number of ways that people learn, and no one-size-fits-all philosophy about it. You have your kids who like to jump in and get their hands dirty (literally and metaphorically). You have your kids who like to sit back and watch for awhile as they get the lay of the land. You have the kids who can’t wait to get “on stage” to show off what they know, and those who would prefer to crawl into a hole and disappear if they are ever called on. You have those who like to learn in a group and those who prefer to work alone. Setting up an environment that optimizes learning for everyone is, obviously, quite a challenge! But here are a few things that I believe about learning today (remember, I’m still somewhere on that tangled-up piece of learning yarn):

“The person doing the work is the person doing the learning.” One of my fabulous co-workers says this frequently. When my team and I plan our annual multi-day Ed Tech Success Initiative (ETSI) training, we frequently go back to this statement to make sure that we facilitate meaningful experiences for the participants. We expect the teachers to fully engage, to write about what they’re learning, to converse about what they’re learning, to experiment with technology, and to get uncomfortable with their previous understanding about what good technology integration looks like and how it can impact their students. Even for shorter training sessions on various topics, we would never try to teach without teachers having the tools in front of them to play with. I can’t imagine trying to teach, say, a class on Google Docs without teachers having the freedom to explore things on their own. I often admonish teachers, especially the tech timid ones, to “be fearless clickers.” For many things in life, but ESPECIALLY for anything technology-related, I know from my own experience that clicking the wrong thing and making a huge mistake is the way I have learned just about everything. There’s nothing you can do that can’t be undone, I tell people, and no, you won’t break Microsoft or the Internet if you click on the wrong thing. You might, however, learn what you should have done instead, and discovering that on your own by doing the wrong thing will make you remember it better than anything I would ever tell you about it. So maybe it’s also true that “the person making the mistakes is the person doing the learning.”
Learning is a social endeavor. If I am looking at a task, I can usually figure out an approach and a solution on my own. But if I am struggling with a concept, I need to hash out my understanding by talking about it with others. When my team plans professional learning or works to get a better understanding of how we can support the curriculum, the combination of our thoughts and ideas is always better than anything I could have come up with on my own. When we work together, it’s the very definition of synergy, and one of the best things about working with a team (especially the one I’m on. They are beyond amazing).
Screenshot 2016-09-03 at 7.54.22 AM “define synergy”
It has been so exciting, time after time, for each of us to start with our individual ideas about how to approach something, and then to come up collectively with a product that none of us would have reached on our own. You have probably seen this in your students, too, if you are the kind of teacher who facilitates group work (and I hope you are). As a teacher, I know I need to set up lots of opportunities for this kind of social learning; as a learner myself, I have experienced repeatedly how much more powerful it is when I learn in concert with others.

Deeper learning occurs when learners have opportunities for reflection. If I attend a conference, I always try to write some reflections about the sessions that I go to, because I know with the sheer quantity of information I’m trying to take in, I likely won’t remember that “aha moment” without writing it down and reflecting on what I learned, what I hope to do differently as a result, how I could incorporate that new idea into my situation, who I should share the learning with, etc. A few years ago I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Learning Forward, the professional learning organization that has standards for teacher professional learning. My understanding of adult learning improved significantly from my exposure to that organization, and I try to incorporate many of the kinds of activities that they espouse in order to make learning stick for teachers. “Chunk and chew” is one method: break up the learning into smaller bites, learn a little bit, then talk with a neighbor, write something, do an activity, or SOMETHING to help you process that new learning. The professional learning experiences that I plan have significantly improved since becoming “Learning-Forward-ized” – I am much less committed to cramming everything I possibly can into a one-hour session and more focused on providing meaningful learning experiences and reflection time. Do I sometimes forget and go back to “Oh wait! Let me just tell you one more thing!”? Yes, probably; but I am steadily making my own progress toward focusing on the learners and giving them more time to process and reflect on what they’ve experienced and learned. Reflection can also take the form of teaching others what one has learned.

Learning should involve choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity. This “COVA” model is used in my graduate program, and frankly, I love it. Within certain parameters, I have freedom of choice in how to complete my assignments. I feel complete ownership of the process of my own learning, and I have been given the freedom to use my voice in the way I see fit (for example, the letter-writing style that I have developed in this blog). Finally, the assignments all seem very authentic to me; everything in my program is designed to help me launch my innovation plan (more on that below). Kids, too, need these four elements. I see evidence of student voice and choice in some classrooms when they have “show what you know” assignments, but unfortunately “show what you know” often only comes in the form of an assessment. Students need to feel ownership of and investment in their learning. Finally, the learning needs to be authentic! There’s nothing worse than a fake assignment, and I bet you can all tell what those are. “Fake Reading,” for example, involves those awful online “reading improvement” programs; there is NOTHING about those programs that remotely resembles how real people actually read. Students need to be spending their time on creating real content that makes a difference to others (and to reading real books… also a whole other blog post). Learners can’t be kept from learning when it’s something they are truly, authentically interested in – and will be presenting to an authentic audience.

Teaching and learning is a partnership that is based on relationships. I would not go so far as to say that NO learning ever takes place in a classroom without relationships, but I firmly believe that students who have good relationships with their teachers learn better. Relationships are built on trust, mutual respect, and a basic sense of affection for one another; if I’m not sure that my teacher basically likes me (or at the very least, likes teaching), I’m always going to be a bit unsure of myself when I venture forth with the answer to a question or turn in an assignment. As a learner, I want to know that my teacher has my best interests at heart and is going to respond to me with high standards, kindness, and encouragement, rather than with apathy or even punishment. Students need to trust their teacher that making mistakes is okay, and when they have confidence that their teacher likes and is pulling for them, they will likely be bigger risk takers. I’ve already said that my best learning has come through mistakes; I need to communicate that – even celebrate it – with my learners. I need to show off my mistakes when I make them and model how to respond when something comes along that is unexpected, or that I just flat don’t know. I need to model how to respond when technology is a great big FAIL (in my line of work, I get that opportunity a LOT). 😉

In this information age, no one can know everything. I am just as likely to learn something from someone in the classes I’m taking as I am in the classes I’m teaching. I say frequently that one of the reasons I love my job is because I literally do learn something new every day. I learn from my colleagues and classmates, sure – but I also learn from my children and grandchildren. It seems they are always coming up with a trick or website or app that I need to try. Which kind of brings me around to my Innovation Plan.

I have this big dream of creating a website of student-created content that will help students (and others in the community) with basic digital literacy skills that they might not be learning in other avenues. My Innovation Plan, “Improving Digital Literacy through Student-Created Content” or “ILDTSCC” is just too big a mouthful, so my new-and-improved project title is CLICK (short for Collaborate – Learn – Instruct – Create – Know). From 18 syllables down to just one! As I think about how my learning philosophy relates to my plan to take over the world for improving digital literacy, I need to consider both MY role with the teachers who have committed to this project, as well as THEIR role with the students who will participate.

In CLICK, students will…
…do the “work” of learning by creating content. They’ll have to decide on a topic, with the help of their teacher or librarian, and consider which tool would be the best for conveying their information. I can facilitate this process by allowing their teachers (my “committed sardines“) flexibility in how they approach the task with their students. I recognize that content production can and will look very different in different situations, and it’s likely that the different teachers involved in the program will have very different ways of facilitating the content creation. The teachers and librarians most interested in the program, of course, are the ones who are probably already comfortable turning control of the learning to their students. I need to be sure to convey to the adults that I really don’t have a lot of preconceived notions of what the student’s content will look like, and there aren’t really any wrong answers. I will learn as I go along, I’m sure, what information the adults will need in order to feel successful in their efforts. The main thing about doing the “work” of the content creation is that the kids will learn and own that concept much better themselves: it’s the magic of learning by teaching!

…participate in a social learning endeavor, have opportunities to receive and give feedback, and reflect on their learning. When the first students are first creating their first projects, it might not seem quite so social, although there certainly could be some cooperative content creation going on. The power of the project will be in seeing who uses that content as the website develops. My hope is that high school kids will have a committee that reviews and curates the content, and that ultimately there will be some kind of social component to the website. Students, for example, would be able to leave a positive comment (“This tip helped me with an assignment” or “I never knew how to do that before!”) or a thumbs-up. So along with learning about creating digital content and learning digital literacy skills, they will also be learning about how to behave appropriately in an online community. As content develops, new ideas for content will likely emerge based on what has been produced already. Because the site will potentially be accessed by all members of the student community and beyond, the learning will be both multicultural and multi-generational. How cool is that?!

…use the COVA model to create content that will help others. CLICK is all about student voice and choice, student ownership of the work, and having an authentic purpose and audience. Teachers involved in the program also have choice and voice in how they want to approach the content creation with their students. I’m optimistic that there will be a LOT of learning going on as students are given the encouragement and freedom to create content that will make a difference not only to their peers, but also to parents, grandparents, and even teachers.

…develop relationships with not only their teacher, but with other students who are involved in the project. I envision opportunities for older students (eventually) to mentor younger students in their content creation, and for the students involved to receive special recognition for being part of the “creator community.” In my biggest dream for the website, students from across the state, nation, and world will also make contributions, so participants will embrace their role as local, global, and digital citizens. It’s these relationships that will likely help students feel connected to the program long after they submit their last piece of content.

I guess all of this lands me squarely in the cognitive-constructivist camp of learning theory. I’m not a radical constructivist as described by McCoughlin (2014); for example, his assertion that “in non-RC teaching, teachers continue to pretend to know everything” is really over-reaching. The basic characteristics of a classroom based on cognitive theories as described by Yilmaz (2011) really resonated with me: an emphasis on the active involvement of the learner in the learning process and creating an environment that encourages students to make connections with previously learned material are two examples.  I also agree with Bates’ (2014) assertion that the social context of learning is critical, which is a constructivist tenet. I believe that students build knowledge through active participation with their environment, and that they construct meaning through authentic interactions and problem-solving.  that Education and Education Theory are iterative processes, always being improved upon and modified in the hope of helping learners. I hope I am iterating – slowly, painfully at times – toward better teaching myself so that others can be more successful learners.

Hope you’ve had a good couple of weeks of school. I look forward to hearing from you soon!



P.S. My reference list is here.


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