“In times of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ” –Eric Hoffer
I’ve always found that quote to be one that I think about most when it comes to education. I want so badly for my kids to be learners, not knowers first. Not that there aren’t things they need to know, but I would much rather they have a yen for learning, for the “patient problem solving” that Dan Meyer talks about, a comfort with ambiguity and failure that is the hallmark of so much deep learning. Broken record, I know, but we’re “right answering” our kids (and our teachers, to some extent) to death in this country. Hard to watch.
I thought of this recently when I came across a post by George Couros who was discussing the shift in professional development at his school. He’s been doing some great stuff up in Edmonton, and his blog posts and Tweets have added a lot to the conversation in the past year. As I read it, this one line stopped me:
“As we move forward, it is essential that our goals focus directly on how they impact and improve student learning.”
I commented on the blog, and there has been some interesting back and forth there. And while I don’t want to hijack the thread, I did want to dive into my reaction a bit more here and see where it might lead
What stopped me is this: should our focus be on how to “impact and improve student learning” or on how to “impact and improve student learners“? It’s a not so subtle shift, but one that I think takes the conversation in a different direction. Our zeal for “higher student achievement” and “improved student learning” is leading us to even more emphasis on standardized tests, because that’s the easiest, cheapest way to assess “achievement” and “learning.” If you want proof, check out this article about the discussion in Massachusetts to replace the state test with the new Common Core assessment. Here’s the “money” quote:
And there have been some suggestions that assessment may include other things that some educators have long been clamoring for, such as portfolios of school work and research papers. Celli, who is a specialist in individual student learning styles, said that a holistic assessment of students would dramatically increase grades and scores. But Latham pointed out the problem with that approach is time and resources and schools donâ€™t have enough of either.
But what if the emphasis was on learners, not learning? As Jaclyn Calder noted in the original comment thread on George’s post, the “learning skills” piece, the self-direction, critical thinking, “patient problem solving” piece are deemed “unimportant” in comparison to the grade on any given assignment. And as George himself points out, is that measuring creativity, passion, and innovation are difficult to do, much less teach. Andrew Rotherham and Daniel Willingham agree in this Ed Leadership piece from this summer:
Another curricular challenge is that we don’t yet know how to teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation the way we know how to teach long division.
Somehow, we’ve got to get there. How do we begin to value these learning skills as much as we value the outcomes?
Harold Jarche says
Any academic subject should be seen as mere grist for the cognitive mill. Developing better mills should be the objective of education. The challenge with an emphasis on learners, not learning (which I emphatically agree with, Will) is that is puts into question the whole notion of content-centric curriculum and therefore threatens the authority of many people in the education industry. Threatening peoples’ jobs will meet with strong resistance.
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says
Is this a new problem though? I mean teaching metacognition or developing learning skills in kids has been around since I was in my preservice prep classes. Good teachers help kids understand– they don’t teach they help them learn.
I remember when reading instruction shifted from phonemic awareness to whole language. We wanted kids to move from decoding to holistic kinds of self-directed comprehension skills, to problem solving with language.
Consider this piece written in 2008…
“Whole language is much more than teaching or learning skills in context . Whole language philosophy is based on evidence that children learn while engaging in authentic acts and experiences, reading and writing for meaningful purposes. Contriving artificial activities for teaching skills in context and focusing on skills for their own sake are not what whole language is about. There is a world of difference in purposefulness and authenticity between, on the one hand, teaching a child to use quotation marks because his story for publication contains a lot of dialogue and, on the other, contriving a writing activity that contains dialogue in order to have an excuse to teach quotation marks. The former is characteristic of a whole language curriculum, the latter is “skills in context.”
There is a solid foundation of research stemming from cognitive psychology and learning theory, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, language acquisition and emergent literacy, as well as from education, to support a whole language perspective. There is also a growing body of comparative research suggesting that whole language learning/teaching fosters a much richer range of literacy attitudes, abilities, and behaviors than more traditional approaches.
The cognitive and construction/constructivist theories and thinking have been part of education since Plato.
I think where education went wrong was when we tried to turn assessment (which drives what we teach) into a multiple choice, vending machine approach. There is no need to produce writers and deep thinking problem solvers if we simply have to become good guessers with multiple choice tests.
You want to turn education around? Focus on assessment. WE teach what we measure. And the truth is that educators do not understand or even have professional conversations around assessment.
Don’t believe me? In 3 years of research with preservice teachers through the ENDAPT project and more recently with inservice teachers with the PLPNetbooks work a content analysis shows that the least discussed area of professional education topics in job-embedded communities – by leaders or teachers– was assessment
Look at slide 30 here- http://www.slideshare.net/snbeach/plcs-in-the-21st-century
What we measure–determines what we teach. If we want to value learning skills as much as outcomes then we have got to focus on learning skills in our standardized measures and assessments.
David Marcovitz says
I’ve been helping my 8th grade daughter study for a vocabulary quiz. She will be matching 26 words to their definitions that will be worded exactly as given. It’s so sad to help her with this because she is not learning new words but learning an association between one combination of random letters and another (for some of the definitions, she doesn’t even know what the words in the definition mean). For this purpose, she is rightly refusing to let me and my wife tell her stories about the words, try to use the words in sentences, or otherwise explain what they mean. She just needs to memorize as efficiently as possible. I believe that some memorization is good and important (math facts, for example, help you use math to think without tripping over the facts), but this is an exercise in futility as she will get a (hopefully) perfect score on the test without knowing what any of the words mean.
Ellen Hrebeniuk says
I’m appalled to hear this and would definitely be complaining: not only that she is doing a pointless memorisation activity, but that she is in *8th grade* (aged 13-14, correct?) and doing this. It that age vocabulary extension should be largely concerned with technical terms in different subjects, eg “onomatopoeia” or “moraine”. Though I might be saying this because we don’t have middle schools; Year 8 is our second year of 6 years of high school.
David Marcovitz says
Yes, it’s pretty appalling. The teacher’s rationale is that she is preparing them for future tests, such as SATs. The words were good words because they were from A Tale of Two Cities, the book they are reading, but I wish she were able to learn what the words actually mean.
Ellen Hrebeniuk says
Well, she is ABLE to learn that, I’m sure (and strongly encourage you to push for knowledge over memorisation). But the teacher has indicated that the point is SATS preparation, rather than actually understanding A Tale of Two Cities. I’d be hopping mad!
Laura Deisley says
For some reason this post of Will’s showed up again in my blog reader tonight. As I read his piece, I said to myself “until we can design broadly accepted assessment tools that reliably indicate mastery in these areas, we’re stuck.” Then I read your comment.
What alternative assessment models are out there (besides CWRA?) that will enable us to move away from standardized, multiple choice testing models? We don’t have the hang-man of ITBS, CRCT, etc tests as an independent school, but the challenge of high-stakes tests such ACT, SAT, and AP still looms heavily over our faculty.
I’ve got an opportunity to come up with five indicators by which we can measure a school’s “report card” to stakeholders–outside of SAT, ACT, AP, and national merit finalists. What should those five be, and how do we go about measuring them? And, in order to be scalable, how can they be efficiently yet effectively measured?
Grateful for your knowledge, your leadership, and your incredible commitment to students and learning. What would you do?
Patrick Larkin says
Will – Not any new information here, just reflecting as I have been getting some first-hand experience in the classroom of late.
I am continually amazed at how students struggle with self-directed learning. By the time students get to the high school, they are so into the regimented teacher-led classroom routine that they do not know how to handle it when they are given more freedom.
I am not pointing fingers at middle and elementary teachers for this problem because we reinforce this monotony at the high school level as well. I also read George’s post and feel strongly that the only way widespread change will happen is if teachers are encouraged and supported to change the way they function as learners as well.
We simply cannot continue to offer one-size-fits-all PD to our staff and expect things to change in our classrooms. We need to allow our teachers to experience learner-led PD so that they they can see how powerful it can be and will in turn start to structure learning experiences in their classrooms in a similar fashion.
I know there are are all kinds of analogies here – One that comes quickly to me is that of a guide taking a group to climb Mt. Everest. How are we outfitting the guides? Right now – it looks like shorts and flip-flops. Some of us have handed out windbreakers. We have a ways to go.
But it is exciting trying to get there!
Will Richardson says
Patrick…I think the problem IS in elementary and middle school, where kids are being prepared for the monotony of high school. Early on, we drive home the idea that every problem has “an” answer, or that there some “correct” way of doing whatever the assignment is. That’s what grades do, right? The “A” doesn’t just mean the best; it means the “most correct.” Creativity, patience with ambiguity, all of that stuff is not something that we model for our kids either. We need to stop doing that to our young kids and instead make them comfortable with failure and thinking creatively as problem solvers.
Nice analogy, btw. ;0)
Katie Mather says
While I agree that the problem, “IS in elementary and middle school, where kids are being prepared for the monotony of high school”, it’s also in college. Or rather, college admissions. And in the kids themselves. So many of those I teach are so freaked out about building their college trascripts and resumes that they don’t WANT anything other than grades. We’ve made grade consumers of them all. How do we convince them that leaning for the sake of learning will lead to even greater “success” when there’s no way for them to put that on the common-app?
Juniper Ridington says
I share the lament that students are so used to teacher directed activities which don’t foster individual interests or problem solving, that they don’t know what to do when they’re in a less limited learning environment. But I don’t think the problem lies in differences between elementary and secondary teachers. I’ve taught at both levels and found exemplary and hide-bound teachers in both environments. In fact, some of the more creative teachers have been at the elementary level, and I think elementary teachers more readily understand how to implement multiliteracies since they’ve always had to use multiple ways of teaching (visual, kinesthetic etc). That said, secondary teachers often lead the way in using new technologies.
Tony Baldasaro says
As my kids get older and their schooling becomes more sophisticated (or is supposed to be anyway) I become increasingly frustrated as a parent. I believe more than ever that my kids’ teachers know them less as learners and more as a workers. They know that they get their homework done, that they pay attention in class, that they respect authority and that they fill in the right (or wrong) bubbles on a test. But they don’t know them as thinkers, they don’t know them as problem solvers, they know very little of what they are passionate about other than the weekly obligatory journal entry that is meaningless and read by one 1 other person. My son was blessed to have a teacher last year(@jstepheng) that knew him first as a learner, second as a worker, but more and more my kids are becoming wrapped in a system that rewards compliance and does not celebrate creativity, problem solving, transparency or risk taking in its learners.
Gerald Edmonds says
We teach children to play sports like soccer [insert any sport here], we take them to practice, we help them develop their skills, and yet we expect them somehow to just know how to learn in a academic setting. Those of us that figure out “how to learn” (some take longer then others) can move from being simply “knowers” trying to keep their head above the standardized test “pool” to learners who can engage with a subject and efficiently organize their learning process.
Students told, “read chapter 1” report back that they read chapter 1, yet they are unable to recall information or place what they read in a larger context. Learning strategies help students organize their learning so that they have a skill set to truly “read chapter 1” that includes creating a comparison matrix, concept map, mind map, Venn diagram or other types of organizers. I remember seeing a mind map for the first time (grad school) and thought “where have you been my whole life!”. We take it for granted that students some how have picked up various strategies. Without strategies, learning then becomes something to slog through and get done.
At Syracuse University Project Advance we believe students need to be taught how to be effective lifelong learners and we have developed a website http://cls.syr.edu based on SU Professor Marlene F. Blumin’s work with college learning strategies. We do not take it for granted that students will just somehow learn various learning strategies (exam prep, reading for understanding, time management, graphic organizers, note taking, etc) but need to be taught these skills. We also train teachers in the strategies so that they can start to incorporate specific strategies in the discipline specific courses they teach.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for sharing that site, Gerald. I think that self assessment can be a great way of focusing in on the skills that we are adept at and the ones that we need to work on. And it’s great to hear that someone is thinking about this in the context of pre-service teachers.
Greg Thompson (@akamrt) says
Schools are no longer places designed around the act of learning by learners seeking to make sense of the world around them. Because of this, the emphasis has been placed on knowing “stuff.” Too many far-removed individuals are making the decision on what “stuff” should be known, when it is appropriate to know it, and the sequence in which learners will go about becoming “knowers.” That isn’t learning! But, it can help insure higher test scores.
If the shift away from content driven schools to process driven ones were to occur, we would be taking a major step toward what school needs to be. Processes take time and require a mindset that allows for failure as a positive step in learning a process. In the end, it isn’t what a student knows that is of utmost importance – it’s what they can do with what they know.
Self-direction can’t be taught, it has to be discovered and that makes the design of the learning environment and opportunities a vital consideration. Teachers can design process driven learning opportunities as incubators for developing self-direction and then shepherd the learners through the discovery process. We don’t have to “teach” everything . . . it’s often better if we let our students discover as much as possible.
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says
Self-direction canâ€™t be taught, it has to be discovered and that makes the design of the learning environment and opportunities a vital consideration. Teachers can design process driven learning opportunities as incubators for developing self-direction and then shepherd the learners through the discovery process. We donâ€™t have to â€œteachâ€ everything . . . itâ€™s often better if we let our students discover as much as possible.
Will Richardson says
Thanks, Greg. I totally agree that self-direction can’t be taught, but they can be “untaught.” I think kids bring with them a lot of passion to learn and the system drums it out of them early on. Sad to watch.
Brandon Kelley says
I like the quotes. I think the professional development is a good thing because it gives teachers a different way of teaching. It also shows ways to use the internet.
Nick Lake says
If students had the choice to learn about things that they are interested in, such as if one student is interested in planets, and outer space yet has absolutely no interest in art the student should be able to learn about their interested topic. Also when a student is not interested in what they are learning about they usually tend to not care about class work, doing homework and putting in effort to that class.
If students liked the topic they were studying and learning, they would pay more attencion in class because they would want to learn about something they like. But if the students are learning about things they don’t like, then they won’t pay attencion in class.
Erin DiPersio says
A lot of the times the problem with learning for students is that at school they are giving all this information in each class, and then told to memorize it and have a test on it. The problem with this is that there is no creativity in this. There is nowhere for the students to express themselves or prove what they can do with the information they were taught. In the end, what will happen is the test will come and they will do fine, but once they lift their pencil from the paper on the last question, all the information they learned will go right out of their head because they didnâ€™t actually learn it, they just memorized it. All this information is dry; it’s not absorbed into their heads. The only way this won’t happen is if they learn it in a creative way and understand how to use that information in their life.
gio faria says
If students chose what they wanted to learn they would be more interested and do more work and participate. If they are learning something that they aren’t interested in they wont try as much if they liked the topic
Assessing students as creative, collaborative, critical thinking problem solvers is very difficult. It is also very difficult to assess a teacherâ€™s ability to teach these skills. There will be no one right form of assessment.
We are seeing even more diversity in the populations within our classrooms in terms of learning styles and abilities. We strive to plan and implement lessons that are individualized in content, process and product to meet the needs of all students. When it comes time for those same students to show their abilities, they continue to be assessed with standardized tests that donâ€™t show all the skills they have acquired.
Greg Thompson (@akamrt) says
Creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking don’t need to be separately assessed, they are evidenced – during – the act of learning. They are part of the process and should be observed and noted as they occur organically within a student’s learning.
I’m not sure we need to over think the learning styles/abilities consideration as much as we have in the past 30 years. Real learning environments and opportunities will have the necessary ambiguous edges that will allow students to use their natural styles/abilities without a teacher intentionally overloading the environment with attention to them.
We talk about students “needs” all the time. They come to us with a natural curiosity and desire to learn about the world around them. We spend far too much time in hand-wringing over how to convince, cajole, entice, or force them to learn what is being prescribed for them to learn. Then we move from the hand wringing to creating over wrought artificial learning tasks that can never draw on the natural curiosity students have. Learning is fundamental to our nature. In education we keep saying, “Kids don’t want to learn so we have to create a production that tricks them into it.” Kids do want to learn, but they see the artificial nature of school – that is what they don’t like.
We need to plan broader, more big picture learning situations that automatically allow for different styles of thinking and learning instead of planning multiple, slightly varied versions of the same lesson.
Jessica Reeves says
I am in 100% agreement…no cajoling necessary when the learning is authentic. Nail-on-the-head, sir. Thanks=)
Patti Grayson says
Hey, Will –
One of your year one Dublin-Dallas PLPeeps here —
Read your post and George’s as well. Assessment really seems to be a recurring concern when discussing the “shift”. I teach 3rd grade in a very academic college preparatory private school, where content reigns supreme, and the parent community wants the cold, hard numbers (to make sure their darlings get into their college of choice).
Yet when I think about our goal to develop young learners and when I read some of the comments on George’s post, I could see the struggle – How do we assess this type of learning through exploration??
I found myself wondering what your position is on grades in elementary school. Do you think they limit us and restrict our ability to change the way we teach?
How do we find the balance to make sure the necessary content is taught and still make the time and have the freedom to inspire these young minds to become confident and competent as self-driven learners?
George Couros says
We actually have eliminated grades this year, moving to comments based reports with exemplars. The goal is to be only comment based and we have removed all exemplars from Music, Art, Health, and French, as they do nothing but kill creativity in these classes. Who are we to judge an individual’s artwork? Yes there are components that we have to report on based on the curriculum, but we are not made to grade anything.
As I really don’t see in the near future that we will be getting rid of curriculum objectives, I am wondering if we work with students to create a great deal more of flexibility with the process of learning? Could we not give students the goal of where we want them to be, provide them with some tools, and give them flexibility on how they get there? I know that these skills need to be guided, but are we guiding these approaches in the early years, or killing them?
When I talk to kids about their behaviour on the playground, I say that it is more important what they do when I am not watching; is it not the same for their learning in schools?
Greg Thompson (@akamrt) says
What if you focus on process orientation and let the “curriculum objectives” be more fluid and let the teachers use them in real organic ways?
Work with your faculty to define the learning processes that will drive the curriculum and then have them work collaboratively to find the best ways in which to use those “objectives” or content? This allows teachers the autonomy to be creative/inventive and create real organic learning opportunities and spaces for their students.
Just a thought.
Gabe Warner says
“a holistic assessment of students would dramatically increase grades and scores. But Latham pointed out the problem with that approach is time and resources and schools donâ€™t have enough of either.”
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? What do we really want? Do we want our schools to improve their “grades and scores,” in a real way, or do we want to continue this banter about “saving our failing schools.” You see the solution, any other option is insanity
David Warlick says
Will, just now looped around to this post. By coincidence I wrote this comparison between students and learners on October 8.
John Andrew Williams says
For the most part I agree with the content of this post.
I would like to add, though, that for the overall success of students not only through education, but life, they need to be knowledgeable on essential life skills. These skills can include motivation skills, time management skills, prioritizing skills, relationship maintenance skills, etc.
Focusing on the overall value of the learners will undoubtedly improve their learning throughout life, and especially in school.
As a prior teacher of students through grades 7-12 and a current Life Coach focusing specifically on the young adults, I have witnessed complete turnarounds in all of my students. Given the essential skills that are unfortunately not taught in schools, students do better in classes and report being happier.
Overall my point is that it is completely valid to focus on the learner because if the learner is competent and confident, then the learning will automatically enhance.
Nicholas Riccardi says
I would have to agree with many here that this is not new information at all. This would be apparent in elementary setting and without a doubt during college admissions!
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