Lessons from the toilet: Shifting the focus of education back to the learner
06 Jan 2016

Lessons from the toilet: Shifting the focus of education back to the learner

Editorial

06 Jan 2016

learning = the activity of getting knowledge
value = importance, worth, or benefit

(Definitions from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

Consider a recent time you wanted to learn something:

  • How did you know you needed more information?
  • What was your process for “getting knowledge?”
  • How did you know you were finished learning; that you had learned enough?
  • What was the value of this learning to you?

A few months ago, water began gushing from my toilet tank when it was flushed. In response, I inspected every inch of the toilet. I loosened and tightened bolts. I poked, pulled, pushed, plugged, and pounded on it. I searched the Internet for gushing toilets and possible “do it yourself” ways to fix them. I read articles. I looked at step-by-step directions with pictures. I watched videos on YouTube. I went to the home-improvement store and consulted with experts. When I attempted the actual repair, I used a guide I found on the Internet, I re-watched one of the videos of a plumber making a similar repair, and I went back to the home-improvement store for additional supplies and advice. After several hours of research and application of my new learning, my toilet was fixed! Proud of my success, I posted the experience on Facebook. As luck would have it, one of my friends was a general contractor who knew more about plumbing than I did. He offered some additional advice to prevent future leaks, which I immediately implemented. Several months later, the toilet is still leak-free and I feel the self-satisfaction of having learned how to repair it successfully.

I have the opportunity to interact with children in K-12 public school classrooms on a regular basis. When asked about learning, students typically only consider experiences they have within the context of the structured school setting. They know what to learn because their teacher tells them it’s important; their process for learning is to follow the instructions provided by the teacher; they know they’re finished learning when they’ve satisfied the teacher’s objectives and are told they’re done; the value of the learning is the final grade given by the teacher.

At a recent visit to a middle school in Wisconsin, I met a pair of 7th grade boys. I observed them silently reading and taking notes out of a shared textbook for approximately 10 minutes during science class before approaching them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Learning how to use a microscope,” one responded. There were no microscopes anywhere in the classroom that I could see.

“I wonder if there is another way to learn how to use a microscope. What do you think?”

Puzzled, they looked at one another, glanced at the whiteboard where the “Daily Objective” was clearly printed, and after a long pause, one hesitantly guessed, “Maybe we could try using one?”

Their responses to further questions I posed about learning were very similar to those described in the previous paragraph. When I suggested they might broaden their thinking about where, when, how, and with whom learning might take place, they became quite animated and excited to share their authentic learning experiences with Minecraft.

According to these boys, they play Minecraft because they like it and it is fun. They seek out opportunities to learn more about what they can do within the game because they want to be able to play and build better things. They learn by playing, watching videos, and asking friends. They know they’re finished learning when they feel they successfully accomplished what they set out to do, or they determine they are no longer interested in continuing with that particular learning. Often, they are so excited about what they’ve created within the game, they share their successes through recording and sharing videos on YouTube so others can learn from their experiences. When I asked if they needed a teacher to tell them they had satisfactorily completed the learning and assign a grade to represent their knowledge of Minecraft skills and techniques, they laughed.

“The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it.”

When we are interested in something or recognize a personal need for information, we seek out learning opportunities and continue gathering information until we’ve satisfied our curiosities and learned enough. We have developed skills, strategies, and resources for learning; and when we determine we need to seek out additional sources of information, we do.

When I first asked these boys about the kinds of learning they do at home, their responses were framed around homework assigned by their teachers. Like many other students with whom I interact, it didn’t occur to them that what they’re doing when they develop their Minecraft abilities is learning. The difference for these students in learning done at school and learning done at home, is value. The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it (e.g., fun, personal satisfaction, or function).

The following questions are often used to frame teachers’ thinking as they develop lesson and unit plans:

  • What do you want the students to know and be able to do (i.e., what is the standard/objectives)?
  • What activities or learning tasks will you design for students to complete?
  • How will you monitor students’ progress on these learning tasks as they move toward mastering the standard/objectives?
  • How will students prove they’ve mastered the standard/objectives?

What’s the difference between these questions and the questions I posed above?

Learner focus.

Using my original questions, learners design their own experiences to satisfy self-developed curiosities, desires, and needs. Using the teacher-developed questions, mandatory learning is decided by someone else and forced upon learners regardless of their curiosities, desires, and needs.

The real question then becomes, can we shift the focus of learning at school back to the learner? As educators, we owe it to our students to trust their abilities to identify topics of interest, develop and engage in their own tasks and activities to support knowledge gathering, and recognize when they’ve learned enough to thoroughly satisfy their curiosities. This is how people create personally-meaningful value in their learning. In reality, the skills and strategies those 7th grade boys use in attaining and applying Minecraft knowledge transfer to other areas of Minecraft, to other games, and to other situations, including (should they be curious about these topics) fixing toilets and using microscopes.

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