Four Things I Learned about Learning

The spring semester is coming to an end, for me and millions of other students across the land. It’s been a whirlwind tour, especially this past April when I was writing several papers, blogging every day, preparing presentations, and watching a ton of lectures. A fire hose! but now that it’s done, that was so-o-o-o fun! Let’s do it again.

I wanted to reflect a little on education itself to share four things I have learned about learning, being an older person back in the classroom. There are a few simple but BIG ideas, which unfortunately get lost among the theories and battles going on in the education world. Let me comment on some of those impediments first, then list my four things.

Ignore Education Under Siege

I did scan recent headlines a bit to see if there were any new prominent learning theories to share in this post. What I saw in the education section was scary, though familiar. Headline after headline shows that classrooms are a war zone of ideas. These are the NYT stories this week about education: “New York Is Forcing Schools to Change How They Teach Children to Read”; “Florida Rejects Dozens of Social Studies Textbooks, and Forces Changes in Others”; “A College President Defends Seeking Money From Jeffrey Epstein”; “Asked to Delete References to Racism From Her Book, an Author Refused.”

I realize that newspapers, especially the NYT, focus on things controversial and therefore newsworthy, but it seems quite sad that there is so little here that addresses actual learning as opposed to this politicized content. Even the reading headline is misleading! What really happened is that New York, like other regions, has found that de-emphasizing phonics has been associated with reduced elementary school reading scores. They are now going to give schools a choice of three different reading programs, which isn’t exactly “forcing.” Each program has a phonics component, as opposed to programs they were using that didn’t have phonics. Apparently, some programs emphasized enjoying reading without phonics. Frankly, I don’t understand why you can’t do both. What I do know is that teachers are constantly having to re-adjust to new textbooks and new methods, when what they need most of all is time to help students plus students who aren’t distracted by hunger and too many others in the class. But this is not about fixing those problems.

Basic contemporary learning theory. Good luck!

Learning Theories Are Awfully Theoretical

I went looking for “new” and useful learning theories to share with you and yuck! There are too many learning theories. The first thing the Internet showed me was “Thirty-Two Learning Theories You Need to Know!” I find it hard to believe that any teacher needs to juggle 32 ideas while trying to decide which one to use.

Meanwhile, I’ve had classes on adult learning, and I’ve trained trainers, so I do know the core theory that people learn in different ways. There are tactile, auditory, and visual learners who need different modes to absorb material. I finally figured out just a few years ago that I am fundamentally a verbal learner. I have to READ it, which is why watching video anything is frustrating for me. People used to always say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but not to me. I have to read the thousand words. On the other hand, I’ve had colleagues who tell me that they can’t absorb what they read, so they get even their textbooks in an audiobook form and then they’re fine. I’m married to somebody who can “see” it, so doing it works better than reading about it. When we get home from IKEA, I get out the manual, and she just puts the thing together, while I organize the screws according to the rules in the most useful order for her to find. Teamwork! Plus, that ol’ human brain is so tricky!

Bloom’s taxonomy, courtesy of the Peak Performance Center.

Then, there’s the infamous Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, aka the Pyramid. It’s pretty simple in concept. You start with just memorizing bits of things and then work your way up until you can use those bits of things to draw new conclusions. This is a handy diagram, to be sure. People always complain about having to just memorize facts. On the other hand, we’re a world full of so many false facts that knowing the real facts might be helpful. So, while I’ve had this shown to many times, I’m never quite sure what to do with it.

Learning What You Already Know

Anyway, enough about how learning theory is so dense and obscure that it hardly seems like it would teach you about learning. I was casually reading a book on vacation which stopped me in my tracks (I think I was on a boat at the time, so stopped me on a wave maybe). It may be the most important theory I’ve ever read and it didn’t even have a colored pyramid slapped on top of it. So here’s my First A-Ha! about Learning.

1. New learning has to fit on top of your existing knowledge.

David Gooblar

Technically, that isn’t what I read. What I read, which came from David Gooblar’s Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, was “For a student to be taught, she must revise her current understanding to become a new understanding–it doesn’t just happen automatically.” I happened to read it in an EXCELLENT book on writing by William Germano call On Revision: The Only Writing that Counts. So for you teachers and you writers, there are two good books worth reading. There’s your footnote.

But the important realization for me is that when you are learning something, you have to accommodate it. It doesn’t just “go in.” Even babies have some prior knowledge from the womb, and everything they experience is incorporated into that prior knowledge. If what you are being told–whether it’s historical facts or a mathematical equation–doesn’t fit with what you already know, then you may be poised to reject it, unless the teacher and you can get it to fit. We are natural learners but we are also resisters.

The Value of Confusion and Critique

But fear not! Resistance is not futile. I also realized something else. Fitting this learning which has to go on top of what you already know is going to fight a little. That’s a natural process. True learning, or leveling up, is going to require a little “buffering and battering,” as the Baron used to say. You have to work to get the new stuff in. You might even think about it as going up the pyramid. I have one fact, and now I have this new fact, and how do they fit together? Just memorizing or absorbing the facts isn’t good enough. You have to work through the puzzle, which might be a little frustrating and confusing. But this makes thing number two:

2. Confusion is an Opportunity

Graphic courtesy of Jewish Health Mental Confusion

A little confusion is ok. A lot of confusion, not great. That’s where teachers are supposed to help, so if you don’t understand something, find someone to ask. Teachers also play another crucial role, too, though and that’s sometimes underrated.

One way to get this new information that you have to accommodate is simply by absorbing content passively. You read a book, watch a video, or listen to a lecture. You fit this new source of data in somehow. More and more, learning is going online to keep the costs down. The problem is that you need help, engagement, and feedback in order to really fit that new information into your puzzle. You especially need someone else to give you feedback.

Feedback is really hard. It’s also the most valuable part of learning. This is where someone–who has a different perspective–shows you how the puzzle pieces fit together. Or where your pieces aren’t fitting. I’ve been supporting a few online courses where students have to watch a lot of video material. It’s excellent material, but it’s still passive. They write assignments; I give feedback. I can tell from their reaction that they aren’t used to feedback. But that’s where the magic happens, to me (and to them because I get a surprising number of thank you notes). That’s how learners really incorporate the parts of the material that they didn’t absorb, because someone else is pointing it out to them.

3. Getting Feedback on Your Ideas Is Crucial Even If It’s Painful

Certainly, there’s a nice way and not-so-nice way to give feedback. We don’t like to be trolled (which isn’t feedback, by the way, it’s just random acts of hate). But we also can’t use responses that just tell us something “is great.”

So if you are soliciting feedback from friends, colleagues, and so on, you need to find people who will be candid and show you which puzzle pieces aren’t fitting. That’s how you really grow and learn. That’s where Your Magic happens.

The Promise of Not Yet

The last idea is part of learning theory, but it’s a good part. This theory is so elegant and profound that it is a fitting ending for this post. This is Carol Dweck’s simple idea of growth mindsets.

Dweck is a Stanford researcher who has been working on people’s perceptions or “mindsets” for years. She’s been working on neuroplasticity — yikes! big words again! — which means how the brains are able to accommodate new information, i.e. learn. She noted that when people have a “fixed” mindset, they think their intelligence and capabilities are set. They can’t learn more than what they believe they have the ability to learn. I’m not smart enough to get algebra.

4. You Just Haven’t Learned It–Yet

People with a growth mindset believe that they can do it, and that it’s effort-driven. I just never had enough time to figure algebra out. If you believe that you can, but you just didn’t for some good reason, then all things are possible. Learning is a function of time and resources as much as natural ability. Yes, some people are better at hitting a pickleball with spin, giving a speech, playing the piano, or writing a story. You may not have the time or desire to put in the effort to be as good as someone else. But you could if you wanted to. That opens it up!

Talent is involved, but also work and practice–plus coaching/feedback. You can do it. You may struggle because you have to fit it in on top of what you already know. You may need key feedback from someone with a different perspective to see what you are missing. It may take a LOT of practice, and maybe you can’t put in that much effort. People do have lives and jobs. But you CAN do it, if you want to. The world IS your oyster.

So if you want to learn something, you can . There’s no dog too old to learn a new trick. Just be willing to put in time and effort, to ask for some real feedback, to be a little confused, and to fit it in with what you already know.

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