Monday, July 22, 2013

What is learning?

"Learning is now truly participatory in real-world contexts. The transformation occurs in that participation, that connection with other learners outside school walls with whom we can converse, create, and publish authentic, meaningful, beautiful work" (Will Richardson). 
Social media clearly has much to offer learners, be they students in elementary schools, secondary schools or dare I say it, in teacher education courses.  I am amazed by the quantity and quality of work appearing on Twitter, which has become my social media platform of choice over the past few months. I love that I can read the micro-blogs of renowned thinkers in education. Most important, though, are the links to detailed articles and blogs on education.  I find that I am clicking on links from people I highly respect, and this is a key component of my learning -- I am self-selecting the readings, finding things that are important to me and my current practice. Eventually, once I am more comfortable and confident, I will begin generating content; that is, doing exactly what Richardson argues learners need to do today. Effective educators have had students creating and publishing "authentic" work for some time, with varying definitions of "authentic"; what is authentic to one student (or teacher) doesn't necessarily resonate with another.

Richardson argues that self-direction is key to defining learning: that it "suggests a transfer of power over learning from teacher to student—it implies that students discover the curriculum rather than have it delivered to them. It suggests that real learning that sticks—as opposed to learning that disappears once the test is over—is about allowing students to pursue their interests in the context of the curriculum. And it suggests that learning should have an authentic place in the world, that it should be shared with the world." I like this definition; I can think of many lunch hour conversations with my secondary colleagues where we bemoaned the lack of transfer of skills from one classroom to another.  It often seemed as though students would forget the the logic used in their math classes when they entered my English classroom. I often wonder if perhaps allowing more self-direction in their learning would help with the transfer of the skills we teach between subjects and would help solidify some of the learning.  Again, authenticity or relevance would be key.

I have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Katz a couple of times now, and I find what he says about learning intriguing:   he suggests that it is a permanent change in behaviour/practice.  That people only truly learn something if they somehow create a change in their actions (I am paraphrasing). I have been thinking a fair bit about this definition and how it relates to secondary schools.  I'm not always sure that what I have asked students to learn has lead to a permanent change in their behaviour.  As an example, I have spent considerable time asking students to improve their essay writing skills. We would dissect exemplars with highlighters, we would discuss various essay structures, formats, purposes, etc., but not all students would be able to transfer what we were talking about to their own writing.  Too often, the topics would be too far divorced from their own perspectives, even when they were self-selecting (and oh, how painful self-selection could sometimes be).  Too often, the writing of an essay didn't seem relevant to the students.  I think the answer might lie in the authenticity piece: students who were writing for an authentic audience (such as a scholarship or university entrance essay) were more engaged in creating a really good piece of writing.

Technology clearly can play a role in creating authenticity, as Richardson also argues.  I like the TPACK model as a response to the challenge of guiding student learning: the students I have had blogging were somewhat more engaged, but were floundering when they didn't have concrete direction about content.  When given too much freedom, not all students could produce quality work. The TPACK is a helpful tool to consider when trying to guide student learning. I think I will need to plan with it in mind to see if it helps with the engagement of learning.  I like that it provides a broad guideline or scope to help plan for learning (and that it applies to all learners of today).

Reference: Will Richardson (Mar. 2013).  "Students First, Not Stuff."  ASCD. Vol 70, No. 6. pp. 10-14.

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