New Qestions About Learning from New Students

too much tech

Question: Aren’t most college classes geared towards correct answers just like middle/high school?

Answer: No. The difference between college and K12 is like the difference between the K12 school cafeteria and working in a restaurant. In in the cafeteria, you show up with your tray and expect to have mediocre food plopped upon it. You’ll complain, but wind up eating it anyway. In college, the chef calls you into the kitchen and says, “You are working at this station and you will need these tools and skills to prepare this food, and it better be GOOD.”  The higher you go in education, the more is this is true.

In my experience, schools focus on getting the correct answers to limited questions. They rarely ask students to come up with questions. Often the reason that school is considered “boring” by many students is that no really important questions are asked and none of the answers seem to connect to things that people care about.

If you think about it, most of the really important things we learn in life are done outside of a classroom. Correct answers come with experience, failure and demonstrations. Whether we are falling in love, making a cheese cake or learning to drive a car, we know we are getting it right because we had to do something to get there. We had to perform and not just with little tiny facts on multiple choice tests. And yet schools and education has been reduced down to passing one or two tests.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in correct answers sometimes, but I am careful about the things which cause me to feel that I am “right.” If I am right about something, I lose my curiosity about it. I stop looking for answers. If I am curious and skeptical and I have just a little bit of humility, I am able to know, and I mean really know, just a little more everyday. Curiosity welcomes good answers because they always bring 3 more good questions with them to the party.

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If Learning Is Boring, You’re Doing It Wrong

boring imsge

When students enter my “Introduction to the College Experience” course, the think that learning is boring.  They figure with a syllogism like this

P1 – 1) School is a that helps students learn.

P2 – 2)  School is boring.

Egro 3) Learning is boring.

While P1 might be true some of the time, without a conditional, it isn’t always true which therefore makes it false. P2 is also demonstrably false so some people some of the time and therefore makes the conclusion false.

I would say that P1 is NOT true most of the time and P2 IS true most of the time which makes the conclusion seem true, but I would actually argue with the validity of the underlying notions in P1. For many students, school is not a place where students learn or at least learn effectively and they don’t learn things they want to learn, which begs the question, of what is learning in the first place.

What is learning?

When I asked a student in class today if she knew how to ride a bicycle, she said yes, but she hadn’t ridden in over 3 years. When I asked her if she learned anything in her Earth Science class last year, she also said yes.  I then asked her if she was to be given a grade based on a test on a test of whether or not she could ride a bike or a test covering what she learned about Earth Science, she told me that she’d rather take the bike test. When I asked why, she said it was because she knew she could pass because she actually knows how to do that. While it is true that Earth Science might be more complex than bike riding for most people, it is also true that this student sees a real difference between these two learning experiences and it is instructive to note.

When we learn things that we want to know and things we can connect to ourselves, learning is fun. Even if it is difficult, like falling off the bicycle or struggling to understand the evaporation/condensation/precipitation cycle, we continue to try because we want what is there and we can connect something important to our ability to ride a bike or understand earth science to something we want in the world (“I want to ride to the store with my friends” OR “I want to understand how clouds form”).

How do we get learning wrong?

Marcus Lemonis, in my favorite TV show (The Profit  http://www.cnbcprime.com/the-profit/) talks about business being about People, Products and Process. Often, when we are in classes for school, we are not connected enough to the subject matter or the people or the purpose. We need to know that our brains are hardwired to learn. We need to focus the our attention on things that are worth learning or place ourselves in situations where we are likely to care about the People, Products or the Way (Process) we use to learn.

When we are in situations where we know very little about the subject so we have little background knowledge, we cannot place the information we are supposed to be learning to anything meaningful that will stick. We get bored and frustrated. In short we fail to launch because we are not connected. That isn’t learning

We also don’t learn when we are not challenged. All of us do things where we know we will be successful, where we have enough skill or knowledge to perform well.  Stretching to do something new is scary. Making mistakes is not valued in school so we learn to take little if any risk and we don’t move so we get bored.  That isn’t learning either

How should we get learning right? 

Our brains our wired to spot patterns and notice variance in the pattern. We should be looking for the sweet spot when we learn. What is that? When you find a task that is easy enough for you to attempt it but hard enough where you are not successful all the time. No teacher or school can tell you where that spot is.  You have to discover it on it on your own. You have to monitor your thoughts: Is this too easy? Is it too hard? Or do I not know enough yet?

When I mountain bike on a trail, I push myself. Technically speaking, I am not a terrible rider, but I am not a good or great one. I am competent. I know how to ride and what to look for.  Sometimes I get into a rhythm and it feels like magic the way the bike and I turn together like a seamless machine. But, if I ever hope to better, I need to fall down. I need to push myself beyond what I think I am capable of. If I stop pushing, I can relax but I will soon be bored.