Learning is change, and change happens out of necessity. I often think of learning as a very dirty, roll up your sleeves and get to work process. This probably has to do with my science background that is based heavily in inquiry and the constructivist learning. Both of these theories about how students learn are focused on personal experiences.
People always have experiences that form the foundation of their existing knowledge or what they will learn in the future. Because of this, whenever you are interested in teaching something to someone, you really need to understand what kinds of experiences they have had in the past, and that should inform you on how to begin to construct new experiences for them that will help to build upon that foundation of existing knowledge and experiences.
These experiences could look very different depending on who you are working with, and your philosophy as a teacher. Personally, I’m a doer, I need to do something to solidify learning for myself. Let me offer an example.
I enjoy working on old motorcycles in my free time. However, I have never had any formal training on mechanical work. My typical process when fixing a motorcycle starts with a need. In this circumstance, the need is usually something doesn’t work on the motorcycle, and I need it to work. I then do some research. Youtube is probably my main resource, but I also read a lot of posts on forums that are centered around similar problems. Depending on the motorcycle, I might also have a shop manual that I will lean heavily on throughout the process. In this research phase, I am learning, but it is more what I would call “pseudo-learning”. It is temporary. I store the information in my head for a little while, so I can use it in the short term. The real learning doesn’t take place until I am actually doing.
The doing part is much much messier than the research aspect. This is when I head out to the garage, roll my sleeves up, and get to work. I bust knuckles, smash fingers, and strip bolts. There is often a certain amount of colorful language that is involved. Challenge. This is where I encounter challenge, and the work and experience that goes into overcoming these challenges is where my real learning takes place. In those moments, I need to learn, I have to really engage in what I am doing, and think critically about my actions in order to successfully complete my task. But, I’m not always successful. Failure.
Failure is another great learning opportunity. Again, failing means you are being challenged. What you’ve tried hasn’t worked. You have to go back to the drawing board (or Youtube, or the shop manual), and dig deeper. The process kind of starts over again, except this time, you’ve already gained some knowledge. Because you failed the first time, you learned that what you tried was incorrect; you won’t try the same thing again. Progress.
Hopefully, you will eventually end with success. I can tell you from my experience with motorcycles, it doesn’t always happen. There are simply some things that I don’t have the existing knowledge or previous experience to achieve my goals. Could I get there eventually, sure. But, there are sometimes when I just get fed up and call the mechanic. I wanted to put this in here, because this is always a low point for me, and I think it certainly can be for our students as well. This is where appropriate task comes in. Making sure that the experiences we construct for our students, the challenges we put before them, can be overcome. It is always a balancing act. Too little challenge, and they miss out on valuable learning opportunities, too much challenge, and they will get discouraged. You really need to know your students, and be there to support when times get tough. I have to say though, is there any better feeling than overcoming a worthy challenge?
Challenging our students, forcing that necessity to change and learn, is the driving force in a classroom (or at least my classroom). There are definately different ways to challenge students, but again, I’m a doer. I try to get my students’ hands dirty. I do this, because I have had a lot of success learning this way. Are there other ways to learn? Absolutely, but I think it really comes down to this format:
- Learn what your students previous experiences are
- Put a need or challenge in front of them that is appropriate
- Have them gather and engage with resources that will give them an idea of how to tackle the problem
- Let them get their hands dirty and really engage with the problem
- Be there to support them when they fail
- Celebrate with them when they succeed
- Finally, help them reflect on the whole journey
It’s really about their experiences, their problems, their victories, and their learning. I’m just the support crew.