Thursday, May 31, 2012

What I Learned at Harvard

It's been a year since I last wrote a blog post -- a year in which I haven't been teaching, but have been learning instead. My year of graduate school is at an end, and so I'd like to share the biggest thing I learned at Harvard:

We only really learn the things we figure out ourselves.

This actually seems so obvious to me that I'm a little embarrassed to write it down, but from looking at the world around me, it appears it's not so obvious.

This big take-away can be phrased in other ways. You can't make anyone learn anything they're not ready to learn. People don't learn anything if you tell it to them. You can't really teach anybody anything -- you can only guide them in exploring ideas.

It seems to be a more or less controversial statement depending on how you say it. And I'm not sure all those statements really mean the same thing, or are always true. But I do know a few things.

I know that the person who does the talking, the one who explains, is the one who learns. "Learners talk and teachers listen," as my wise Professor Duckworth wrote on my journal this year, and she's right. If I hear someone explain something that makes sense to me, I kind of understand it, but I don't really own it until I explain it to someone else -- or, better yet, to several other people. Even then, it's very possible I won't remember it a few weeks later. If I really want to learn it, permanently, I have to experience it, struggle with it, and figure it out myself.

Here's another part of this that I cannot believe I never figured out in all my years of teaching, and no one ever told me (or maybe they told me, but I didn't learn it): students only learn what they DO.

In other words, as I've heard said at least one hundred times this year, "Task predicts performance." The idea is well explained here, but what it means is that we only learn to do what we practice doing. If we practice a procedure until we have memorized it, we are only learning to memorize a procedure. If we work with a team to solve a construction problem with blocks, we are learning about constructing buildings, and learning to solve problems in teams. If we sit and listen to a teacher talk, we are learning to sit and listen to a teacher talk, but nothing more. We only learn to do the things we do.

The obvious problem here is that when we think of what it means to be a student, we think of students sitting and listening to the teacher. And when we envision a teacher, we envision someone standing in front of students, talking. According to what I've learned this year, in this scenario the person doing the learning is the teacher, because the teacher is the one talking and thinking. The students are learning to sit and listen.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago. I'm part of a group that has Harvard professors come and speak with us for one hour on Friday afternoons. It's a chance for us to hear about different professors' work, even those whose classes we didn't get to take.

Until last Friday, the visits were almost indistinguishable. The professor would announce, "I'm just going to talk for 20 or 30 minutes, and then we can have a conversation." They would open up a powerpoint presentation with 40-60 slides, talk for 50 minutes, then entertain 2 or 3 questions before leaving.

A few weeks ago, Steve Seidel, a truly great teacher, came to speak with us. He brought 15 slides, and only got through 7. He told us about some thinking he'd been doing lately, with some quotes from Frederick Douglass that had pushed his thinking. He asked what the quotes made us think. Then he told us he had to give a talk soon, and would we think about the topic of his talk, and maybe connect it to the Douglass quotes, and tell him our thoughts. He took careful notes of each person's ideas, and thanked us for helping him plan his talk.

It was the polar opposite of the other Fridays, and I was struck by how much more useful it was. Unlike the other talks, I can still remember what we talked about, and I suspect I'll remember it for some time. Most importantly, Steve came to listen, think together, and to learn from us, and the result was that we thought and learned, too.

All of this thinking about how people really learn -- by doing and talking, not by listening -- and how to teach -- by listening -- has me trapped in a new quandary. All around me, I see people "teaching" by telling people things -- Harvard professors, elementary school teachers, and myself, on a pretty regular basis. But I don't think people are learning much this way.

Teachers, policy-makers, administrators, and academics need to learn that this isn't how people learn. And my instinct is to tell them this, to say, "You know, no one's gonna learn that if you just tell it to them."

You can see my problem, of course. No one will learn this from me telling them, because that's not how people learn. Teachers won't change their practice, and school leaders won't change their priorities, because I (or some other little pipsqueak) come along and says that people don't learn this way. People have to learn it for themselves, when they're ready to learn it. They'll be ready to learn it when they experience it, or closely watch their students and observe it. And there's no way to make that happen quickly.