In April, at my old blogging grounds, I wrote a post musing about learning that was spurred by the reading of Seymour Sarason’s book “And What Do YOU Mean By Learning.” Feel free to read the whole thing for some context, but the part that I snipped from Sarason’s book was this:
Learning is not a thing, it is a process…I try on these pages to distinguish between contexts of productive and unproductive learning. And by productive, I mean that the learning process is one that engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literature in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learnng they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? (Boldface mine.)
So I took that last part as a bit of a challenge. Over the last few months, at about two dozen conferences and professional days, I’ve been asking the educators I meet with to take a few moments and in small, informal groups, try to define learning. It’s been an interesting moment every time. People get very animated as they attempt to capture the essence. Some find it, as Sarason suggests, difficult and frustrating. Others seem to latch on to something right away. I’ve even had a couple of people respond that it’s impossible to define.
So what do people report back? I’m guessing I’ve had over 50 different responses, most of which I won’t capture here. But here’s a stab anyway:
- passion to know
- application of knowledge
- seeing patterns
- answering questions
- understanding the world
- acquiring knowledge
- making something
- understanding something you previously didn’t understand
- making connections
- changing your perspective on something
- synthesizing ideas
- adding new knowledge
Like I said, there are others (feel free to add yours below), but that captures the gist of it.
But here’s the fun part, for me at least. When everyone is done reporting out their various ideas and definitions, I make this point: If that’s what learning is, if that’s how we define it, then we have very little idea in this country (and elsewhere) just what our kids are learning based on the assessments we currently give. Hardly a clue. The only things we generally assess are how much knowledge our kids have acquired and, to a lesser extent, what they can actually do with that knowledge. The rest of it? Who knows. As Sarason also wrote:
Test scores have their uses but knowing scores tells you absolutely nothing directly illuminating of the content and contexts of learning (37).
So as we head into the new school year, we might want to start by asking that question of ourselves, of each other, of our parents and of our communities. Just what to WE mean by learning, anyway? The answers might surprise us. And they might, as Sarason suggests, put us on a more meaningful road of education for our kids.