Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Definition of Learning

Thanks, Snagit!
My mom visited my classroom on Friday. She came in and watched my second period class start a structured academic controversy about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was racist then stayed and got interviewed by my advisory about all sorts of things. Most questions were along the lines of “What bad choices did Mr. LS make when he was in high school?”

Towards the end of the period the questions got a little slower and my mom asked my advisory a few questions. One of the things that she asked my advisees was if they were learning anything yet in history. Only one student answered the question, but his answer was no.

I wasn’t overly invested in what my students would say in response to that question - I didn’t know my mom was going to ask it. And I’m not tied up in my students seeing the value of the work we’ve done in my classroom - YET. We just finished our third week of school and we are halfway through a six week introductory unit. Given that the focus of my two year world history class is based around inquiry, with students doing the work of historians in class as much as possible, there is a pretty reasonable chunk of skills that need to be introduced: metacognitive and history-specific reading strategies and processes as well as embracing the ambiguity of history have been the focus of my class thus far.

Instead of being offended or angry that this advisee didn’t feel like he had learned anything in history class in three weeks, I’m sad. (Sorry, but I don’t think it is possible for him to have learned nothing in three weeks - there is no way he was effectively using metacognitive strategies to talk to the text, or that he knew about sourcing or contextualization or how to effectively look for possible bias when attacking a source.) Look at what nine years of school has done to this student - unless he is learning discrete facts he thinks he isn’t learning.

But then on the other side, look at the climate he has gone to school in: high stakes testing has been a concern of all of his teachers, who (most likely) did some pretty serious Freireian banking in order to ensure that their students learned the state-proscribed facts that could appear on the state test. So it isn’t really his fault at all. But it sure is sad as hell.


While defining racism with my fifth period class, I shared a story about my time in Namibia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My students had quickly laid out a definition of racism involving negative actions about people based on their race. This class seems to really like to think, so I decided to see where the story drove the discussion.

For two years in the Peace Corps I was the only white person in my village. Some of the residents of my village assumed that because I was white that I was rich. This was a race-based assumption, but it was positive. Was that racism? For about fifteen minutes the discussion flowed around the room. We brought over my students’ English teacher, who had a prep that period, and she shared her thoughts. My student aide, a junior and former student, shared her thoughts.

As the discussion was drawing to a close, a student said his head hurt. This is exactly what I hope to make happen in my class every day. And I bet my advisee, were he in that class, would have said he didn’t ‘learn’ anything in that discussion.

It’s early in the year for my freshmen. And I have them for two years. But it looks like I need to do some reframing on what real learning is and how that compares to memorizing faces. Because having your head hurt from a complex discussion - without any factual content gained - should be the kind of learning all of our students look forward to and see as valuable.