Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why are we learning this?


"Why are we learning this? Do we have to do it this way?"

We have all heard our students ask these kinds of questions.  I know I have.  Sometimes they ask these questions immediately at the start of a lesson and other times they ask well into a lesson. As educators, we should know why we're asking our students to learn certain topics and we should also have reasons why we've asked students to apply certain learning strategies.  (Of course, the answer of "because you'll need to know how to do it this way for next year" isn't a solid rationale.) So, assuming you have thought things through and have solid reasons for doing what you do and how you do it and your students are still asking these questions, please take the time to clarify with your students the learning intention and why you're asking them to approach their learning in a certain way.

On the other hand, if you struggle to answer these questions on some days, I urge you to consider reframing the questions as...

Is what your students are learning relevant to them in their daily lives?
Is how your students are learning relevant to them in their daily lives?

The reason I am raising this subject is because recently, I have heard many people (educators and non-educators included) question what and how students are learning at school.  I have found there to be quite a diverse range of perspectives. Some people believe strongly that education should focus strongly on advancing the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.  They value the same 'hard' skills that were emphasized when they were in high school and that have likely contributed to much of their success to date.  On the other hand, there are others who believe that in addition to the traditional basics, students must develop the 'soft' skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity in order to be successful in the future.

In order to assess whether 'what' students are learning and 'how' students are learning is relevant to their daily lives, I believe we must clarify the answers to some important questions.

  • What basic fundamental knowledge and skills are crucial for our students to develop?
  • What knowledge and skills are gaining increasing importance as society progresses in the 21st Century? 
  • What methods of learning support the development of this knowledge and skills?
  • What types of environments, structures and experiences contribute to the most relevant and applicable learning for students?
In an effort to answer some of these questions, I will reflect on the professional learning experiences I have been a part of throughout my career as an educator that have stood out in positive ways.
  • I was hooked from the start and excited to learn more about a specific topic.
  • Options were available and I was able to choose a topic or workshop I was most interested in.
  • I was grouped amongst others in a way that encouraged discussion.
  • Questions were framed in a manner that invited participants to share their perspectives and ideas.
  • As a collective group, we constructed meaning around new ideas.
  • I engaged in conversations that challenged my ideas, perspectives and philosophies.
  • I acquired skills and knowledge that I could apply to my current and future practice.
Compare this to the high school classroom of today.  If we were to ask students which factors contribute to their best learning experiences, they would likely identify many, if not all of the same points listed above.

So, I urge you to consider the following questions as you reflect on the relevance of 'what' and 'how' your students are learning.
  • Why am I asking my students to learn what I'm asking them to?
  • Is my students' learning relevant and meaningful to their current lives?
  • Why have I chosen the teaching/learning strategies I'm using to help my students learn?
  • Do my students have input and choice in what and how they learn?
  • Are my students learning by collaborating to actively construct new meaning?   
One thing is clear, 'what' and 'how' our students should be learning is not static.  As the world changes, different skills and knowledge are required.  Undoubtedly, in his blog post 'The Future of Learning', the ideas that Scott McLeod (@mcleod) suggests we should consider when trying to improve the relevance of 'how' our students are learning were not ideas that we would have considered 10 years ago.

So for now I will leave you with two challenges...

If 'what' your students are learning isn't relevant, either contextualize their learning so it is made relevant or don't ask them to learn it.

And if 'how' your students are learning isn't relevant, change how you are asking them to learn so the skills they are applying are relevant. 

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