Teaching: antithetical to learning

by Steve Wyckoff on March 18, 2010

Have you ever learned something that later on down the road you realize that your life would have been easier if you hadn’t learned it? Well I have. Several years ago my good friend Tammy Worcester attended a national conference. When she returned she asked me if I’d ever heard of a man named Roger Shank. I hadn’t. Tammy went on to tell me that I needed to read his book because he been a wonderful presentation as a keynote  speaker.

So I purchased Roger’s book, Coloring Outside The Lines. I loved the book and so I decided to contact Roger. The rest, as they say, is history. Over the ensuing years I have paid close attention to the work that Roger and his many talented colleagues are doing. They have reshaped how I think about schools. Which can be a very frustrating thing because there is so little we can do to change schools.

You see, Roger has made me see how what we do in schools has little to do with learning, especially learning that will enable the student to be a more productive member of society. In Roger’s words, “How we teach is antithetical to how we learn.” Roger talks about, “natural learning” and how it is different than what we do in schools. So here’s a quick look at the difference.

Natural learning occurs when an individual wants to learn to do something:

1. The learner has a goal. The more ownership the student has in the goal the better it is, but a skilled educator can create goals that motivate the student.  All learning occurs when the student does something, the goal is to learn to do that “something.”

2. The learner must then develop their own plan for achieving the goal. This plan is the path that the student has chosen to follow in pursuit of his goal.

3. As the student begins to implement their plan they will have expectations.  In their mind they believe they know what to expect as they proceed with their plan.

4. Along this path there will always be expectation failure or surprise. It’s inevitable nothing can be learned without either failing or being surprised that their plan succeeded.

5. Following expectation failure or surprise is the explanation that leads to student learning.  This explanation can come in many forms. It can be a teacher explaining, a video, a book, a website etc. This is the moment that learning occurs.

In natural learning the cycle is constantly repeated. If you think about it, it’s how we learn everything. How you learned to walk, how you learn to talk, how you learned to crochet, how you learn to fish. It’s also how you learned to read and how you learned to calculate.

So how does this compare to what we do in schools? Let’s look at our approach in traditional classrooms.

1. Explanation

2. Explanation

3. Explanation

4. Test

This is exactly the cycle we follow in traditional classroom. Our hope is that the students will remember what we told them long enough to regurgitate it on the test. And more and more that test is becoming a high-stakes State administered standardized tests thanks to No Child Left Behind.

So Roger has led to a great deal of frustration on my part. As they say ignorance is bliss. And my life as an educator was much easier before I considered how kids actually learn. –  Steve Wyckoff

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