What is learning?

Recently we were asked to think about what learning is and write our thoughts. Below are each of our ideas and thinking:   

What is learning?
By Billy Applebaum

I feel that learning is the knowledge and skills a person acquires through their lifetime from their experiences. Learning is not just academic subjects and is more than just “schooling.” Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, but is always happening, in all aspects of life. As an educator though, the important questions that come out of that are:

  1. What should we be teaching in school?
  2. How should we be teaching in school?

I don’t think there is one correct answer to either of these questions. What I can say though is that the world is changing. The knowledge and skills people needed in the past will not be the same in the future. As a matter of fact, with the rise of the Internet, knowledge has become ubiquitous. In the past, memorization of knowledge was valued, but in this new world humans cannot compete with computers. Artificial Intelligence is not something that is far off in the distant future either. It is here, it is now, and it is named Siri, Alexa and Watson.

In order to truly answer the two questions above, we must try and imagine what experiences students should have today in order to prepare them for the future world they will be living in. While no one knows the future, I believe that there are some things that are timeless and will be useful for students, no matter what the future holds.

I believe that we should shift the focus of what we teach in school from a content centered approach to a skills centered approach (#SkillsFirst). This is not a revolutionary idea, but rather a re-centering of what is important. Teaching knowledge and concepts should be layered around the core of the skills being taught in a unit. These skills also need to be taught and assessed explicitly. In most schools, skills are an afterthought. Rarely taught directly and even more rarely assessed directly. These include: thinking, social, self-management, research, communication, number and literacy skills. 

In addition to the skills, we should also be teaching students how to be good people. We should teach them the attitudes and attributes of internationally minded people (including humility, which I believe is missing from the I.B.’s learner profile). I think students should leave primary school knowing how to think critically, socialize in small and large groups, manage themselves, research and organize data, communicate effectively and be literate in language and mathematics. All while being globally minded thoughtful people. Not exactly a simple task, but if the focus is on the skills, instead of the content, I think it is more attainable and useful for the student’s future.

Now that I have made my arguments for what I think should be taught in school, the question remains, how should we teach it?   

“Tell me and I will forget.
Show me and I will remember.
Involve me and I will understand.
Step back and I will act.” 
– Chinese Proverb

Adults instinctively want to explain their experiences to children so that they can learn from them. The truth is though; we need to have our own experiences to truly learn. This is why I believe that the best approach to teaching; while honestly difficult at times, is by letting students discover through their own inquiry. Sure, some things still need to be rote learned, like Chinese characters and multiplication tables, but most things can be framed to allow students to inquire, discover and have their own experiences. Teachers should be more like coaches, helping each student find their potential, rather than dispensing information. In addition, student agency is incredibly important and students should be in charge of their own learning and allowed to make choices about how, what and even when they learn. 

Creativity also needs to be instilled, not suppressed in the classroom. This isn’t just for the Arts either (although that is incredibly important) this is the ability to think differently. Students should be allowed to question the world around them and should be exposed to philosophical questions (P4C) to make them think.

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful.

How do you explicitly teach and assess skills? This is something I have been working on with my colleagues and developing over time. Teaching and assessing knowledge is easy; we have been doing it for over 100 years. How though do you explicitly teach and assess social skills like group decision-making or accepting responsibility?

We have been “flipping” units to a #SkillsFirst approach by designing them based on the skills. Of course, these skills can’t be taught in isolation, and so knowledge and concepts are used to teach these skills through.  

One example was a science unit based on simple machines. Instead of focusing on the knowledge, we shifted the focus to two social skills (accepting responsibility & group decision making) and two self-management skills (time management & organization). Through the unit, students tackled group challenges where they needed scientific knowledge. While half the students were in small groups trying to solve a problem, the other half were taking notes and videoing those students doing the challenge. They were investigating how the group worked together. They analyzed the good and not so good things happening in the groups; reflecting and discussing ways we could all improve our skills and setting goals for the next group task. Mini lessons and workshops were not about pulleys or levers, but rather on what makes a good or bad leader or how to use time effectively.

As an assessment tool, we used something developed by a colleague called the “Gradual Increase of Independence.” (@OrenjiButa) This is a simple “one-size-fits-all” model for assessing skills. It is also really simple and easy for students. There are four stages: Shared (adults do, I watch), Guided (I do, adults help), Independence (I do, adults watch) and Leading (I do, others learn). Students keep track of their self-assessed progress on a living, breathing rubric in the classroom and peers, parents and teachers are invited to share their input as well. This has proved to be quite successful in assessing skills thus far, but we are still experimenting with other ways.

As the world changes, so should the content of what we teach and the ways we teach it. Having one teacher in a box dispensing knowledge to twenty something students is not going to give them the experiences they need for their future. I believe students need to have more experiences outside the classroom so they can learn by doing. I believe that teachers should collaborate and team-teach so they can better “coach” students and learn from each other. I believe that students should be allowed to inquire into the things they are truly passionate about, so they will naturally be engaged in their learning. I believe that students should be empowered to take control of their own learning.

I don’t have all the answers, but by being open to new ideas and working collaboratively with others, I believe that answers can be found. In order for us to help students learn and prepare for their unknown future, I believe we need to shift our focus in the classroom to mastering skills. We need to allow students the freedom to inquire into what interests them, think about the world around them, and reflect on what it means to be a good person. I believe that if they can do this, they will be able to handle anything the future will throw at them!


What is learning?
By Chizuko Matsui

I have heard many people saying that learning is a lifelong process and it never ends. I agree with this statement. It is not because that is a fact, but also from what I have been experiencing. Since I am an educator, I interact with children with different cultures and learning styles. Every school year, I learn different approaches through them and other teachers. I try new approaches to fit every one of my students. However, I also disagree with this statement in a sense of what learning means. If learning is about obtaining new academic knowledge, it is difficult to say that it is a lifelong process to every one of us because usually once we are not longer in an academic environment; we stop learning academically unless we keep our interests.  Some of us keep our interests in learning particular subjects, such as language, cooking, and sports. Yet, I always wonder if that is what we call learning, or just having a hobby.  Could a hobby be learning? We also learn social skills through having different relationships through our life. We usually learn through difficulties. That is an inner growth. Can we call inner growth learning too? 

At the bottom of line, we can call anything learning. If that is the meaning of learning, then learning is a lifelong process because we learn something everyday even though sometimes or most times we do not notice. We, as a human, learn and build different learning based on it. Then, we inter-cross different learning and build more complicated learning.  I believe that makes us human.

The importance of learning, to me, is to build our basis of learning, which often occurs at the early stages of our life and is not a lifelong process. We obtain the basis of learning, then we learn new and different things based on our basis, which is a yearlong process. The latter can occur anytime in our life and can become our hobby, such as learning a new language or new skills. Depending on what our basis is, learning changes. For example, if we don’t learn how to be curious about how things during our early years, we probably won’t have any interest in engineering or the meaning of organisation later in our life. Even if we grow our interests, it may be harder and take more time to learn than people who already had interests and basis of it.  If we are not exposed to different ideas and cultures, it may take more time for us to be open-minded towards different ideas and cultures. 

In a way, learning is experiencing to me. Based on experiences we open different doors to other experiences.  The fewer doors we open, the less experience we have. This starts happening once we are born. During the early years, our environment of curiosity is the major key to open doors, such as learning through play, then our curiosity leads us to different doors and more doors.

Learning to me has two stages, lifelong and basis.  Basis of learning connects to our lifelong learning. Therefore, I believe basis of learning is more important and it usually only happens at the early stage of life. As an educator, I believe that any educational environment should give anyone a good basis of a learning environment, meaning enhancing curiosity that leads to different learning in the future. 



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