Learning as a Slow Meander

Learning as a Slow Meander




The Journey of Learning

Learning is a meander. A meander is a winding, twisting path. Sometimes a meander wanders aimlessly. A meander is convoluted and almost never seems like it is going in the right direction.

Learning is a meander. We like to force a neat and clean scope-and-sequence learning chart on students. However, true learning meanders—never in a straight line, and never neat and clean.

Some teachers don’t have a coherent theory of learning. They have a patchwork of ideas, fads, and techniques. They don’t have principles, axioms, and assumptions. Their “theory” of learning is to turn to the next page of the curriculum book.

For some teachers, then, curriculum has become a substitute for the dynamic, complex, adventurous interplay of an instructor with students. Curriculum, in those circumstances, becomes a book with a callous disregard for who students are or what they can do.

Education in general is focused on the final product of learning. What did the children learn? We assess constantly, to look for that final product. Everything today—from differentiation to assessments to backwards design—is all about understanding the final product.

Of course, the final product is important. But it is more important to understand the process of learning. If we understand the journey of point A to point B, we’ll have a much better understanding of children’s learning than if we simply look for the end product.

This article looks at that issue—how do students get from point A to point B? It’s a long, slow, meandering path, but it’s a path to which we can be attentive.

Below is a definition of learning. The definition is component-based rather than analytical. In the rest of the article, each of the phrases below will be further expanded. In the upcoming four articles, the each of the phrases are expanded.

Real learning is a learner-driven adventure. It is a meaningful, slow, meandering dance between teacher and student. It is always set deeply in a dynamic context and is socially active. Done best in a variety of modes, learning is emergent and transformative.


Real Learning is a Learner-Driven Adventure

Real learning is student-centered and student-driven. Student-centered learning is an adventure for kids, an exciting journey that engages the whole child. When teaching is learner-centered, it stimulates kids’ curiosity and helps them see the limitless possibilities of learning. Real learning, on the other hand, is deep and enduring. Real learning has the power to change attitudes and change behavior. Real learning is applied to real life, and connects up with other learning. Real learning makes a difference.

Unfortunately, much of what goes on in classrooms is teacher-controlled. In many classrooms, teachers choose the curriculum, decide on the teaching methodology, decide on the assessments, and then grade the performance.

Real learning is when kids discover on their own, with the expert guidance—not control—of the teacher.


Learning is Meaningful

Real learning is meaningful to the student. And that meaningfulness is defined by the student, not the teacher. We can’t “make it meaningful for them.” What we can do is to create an environment that will make it more likely to be meaningful to the student.

Meaningfulness is when students know why they are learning it, and that reason makes sense to them. Meaningfulness is to teach a skill when it is needed, not when the curriculum book says so. Meaningfulness is genuine, useful, and authentic. Meaningfulness is not associated with a technique, but rather with tone, relationships, and slow teaching.


Learning is a Slow, Meandering Dance Between Teacher and Student

Learning is never the slow, sure growth desired by curriculum writers. It is meandering, disrupted, and constantly changing. Real learning happens slowly, as we connect one set of knowledge with another, as we see patterns in the information. Learning happens slowly as we apply the knowledge into one new situation and then another.

Teachers have a critical role of preparing an environment, of making not only a welcoming physical place for learning, but a welcoming emotional place. Teachers guide the learning helping the new learners navigate uncharted waters. New learning is rife with dead ends and log jams. Teachers must help the learning students get unstuck when they hit a wall.


Learning is Always Set Deeply in Dynamic Context

The information we receive is always run through a variety of filters. One of the most important filter is our current experiences. Learning is always filtered through our current set of experiences, our situation, and the sense we have of life at the moment.

We never learn information in isolation. It is always run through the context of our situation. Put another way, the information we take in is connected with something else. Learning, for example, is tied into our sense of place. That’s why you remember where you were on 9/11 and why you can’t remember the name of the lady from church when you see her at the grocery store.

Tests and assessments ask us to recall information in isolation, something we are not hard-wired to do. Too much teaching is done in isolation, which becomes something we are not likely to learn. Learning is always contextual


Learning is Socially Active

Learning is a social experience. The learning doesn’t just happen inside our own skin. We rely on others, we filter the information through others, and we help each other learn. When relationships are good, we learn better. When we are under some kind of social threat, we learn poorly.


Learning is Done Best in a Variety of Modes

If students can’t transfer their learning into solving new problems, have they learned? If they are not curious about the subject, will they remember anything? If students can pass a test on the American Revolutionary War, but not know who won, can we say that they know the topic?

Sometimes we fall into a rut of only teaching one mode of learning. For example, we want students to know the vocabulary. So we teach and drill so that they understand the vocabulary of a topic, but we don’t venture into extending and connecting that beginning knowledge into other fields.

Learning is best done when we come at the topic from a variety of angles, or modes. When we teach students vocabulary, that’s one mode. When we teach them to apply it, it’s another mode. When we help them extend the knowledge into other fields of knowledge and domains, it’s another mode. When we help them understand how to become self-directed in the topic, it’s another mode. When we help them understand their own relationship with the topic, it’s another mode. The more modes with which the students learn, the more integrated the knowledge will be.


Learning is Emergent and Transformative

Real learning is by nature, emergent. Emergent means that the system has done something that it was not designed to do. When people take knowledge and do something new with it, that’s emergent learning. Today, curriculum companies advocate an extremely tight control over learning. However, real learning is emergent, and must be allowed to go places that we never intended.

Real learning is always transformative. Students get a new vision for who they are, and it changes what they believe they can do. Real learning changes people.


–Jim Ollhoff, PhD



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