Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Is Real Learning?

In my last post, I described what fruit our science readings are bearing in Pamela's mind. She continues to refine her thinking about animal feet and put notes in her science notebook. She recorded tapir under the category clawed and discovered after careful research she had incorrectly placed as clawed when they are actually webbed. She cannot decide if trolls have claws or nails, which sparked a long discussion on my facebook page. While watching the speech Brutus makes right before Anthony steals the show, Pamela shared that Brutus had bloody fingernails but decided not to put that in her science notebook.

We started another page in her science notebook based on another train of thought Pamela has been following for some time: inventions. In one book on Alexander Graham Bell, he shares his newly invented liquid transmitter (i.e., telephone) at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. On display were machines invented between 1776 and 1876. Launching from that idea, she drew two columns in her notebook, labeled 1776-1876 and 1876-1976. She came up with a list of inventions and placed them in their proper category. Pamela continued to add items here and there and two days later asked, "What about 1995?" I flipped the paged and asked, "What should you write?" I was came up with three labels but refrained from giving her any suggestions because then I would steal from her the chance to think: 1976-2012, 1976-2076, and 1976-?. She chose to write the first option.

If you look carefully, Pamela wrote the word BETAs for the video format competing with VHS. We never had the beta system, nor have I taught Pamela about it. She has figured this out through her own research. Also, note that I could have encouraged Pamela to work backward in time and create more columns. However, then I would be thinking for her, which would hinder her from following an idea where it took her. Ideas let students to places when teachers get out of the way.

This school year I have reported how Pamela chooses the order of books and things: in her mind, she has organized every book, song, art study, etc. in chronological order. She has sorted them all from earliest event in B.C. to the latest one in A.D. We are singing Joy to the World for our hymn study and she placed it in B.C. when Jesus was born. She sandwiched it between Plutarch's account of Brutus and the New Testament reading. Pamela is quite flexible in how she approaches it. Some days she moves forward in time from beginning to end, and other days, vice versa. At other times, she closes her eyes and lets me pick in any order, giving her a clue and letting her guess which one. Now, she has refined her system even more: she has developed new categories: first century A.D., the Middle Ages, the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, and 21st century. Sometimes we start in one category (Middle Ages) and jump to something completely different (21st century). By avoiding a strict structure and order, as is often recommended for children in the autism spectrum, I am letting Pamela think more flexibly.

The common thread in comments on that post pointed to these examples as being "real learning". One friend compared it to contrived teaching:
This is just what we experienced regarding geography. Last year I broached the subject of learning the names of the states using a fun music CD that our nieces had enjoyed. We had already been using the idea of bringing out the map or globe whenever we started a new book. Tim resisted so I put it aside. Then in the spring we took an Amtrak trip to Iowa. Tim became interested in the states we traveled through, looking at the travel map and talking about it often. When I brought up the idea of learning the states again, he was very interested and geography became a favorite subject! The next step for him was really fun. He likes trains so he thought of the idea of using the capitals of the states as the names in the states song instead of the states' names. All of the motivation for this was internal and was really fun to watch!
Two friends were pleased to be given a way to assess what real learning is: "This is a wonderful way of distinguishing real learning, which is fruitful and branches off in various directions, from rote learning. I'd never thought of it exactly that way before." "I simply loved reading your account of Pamela's interest in toe nails etc. I thought to myself this is real learning.Something she will treasure her whole life. I so much agree with you that we as teachers need to get out of the way and let them learn."

Another friend linked real learning to flexible thinking: "I so enjoy reading about Pamela's progress. I am overawed at her dynamic thinking."

What is real learning? I think real learning is giving an alert, curious mind the scope to explore ideas and follow them into paths of thinking that begin to intertwine and weave a beautiful tapestry of thoughts.

What is an idea? Borrowing from Charlotte Mason, "A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We all know how an idea 'strikes,' 'seizes,' 'catches hold of,' 'impresses' us and at last, if it be big enough, 'possesses' us; in a word, behaves like an entity" (Page 105) I remember the very moment when the idea of animals having toenails was born. Pamela stared at the feet of the young gorilla and marveled that the primate had black toenails.

What does the mind do with an idea? Coleridge wrote (Page 107-108),
From the first or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate.

Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind which would else rot and perish.

Progress follows the path of the idea from which it sets out requiring however a constant wakefulness of mind to keep it within the due limits of its course. Hence the orbits of thought, so to speak, must differ from among themselves as the initiative ideas differ.

Looking at a picture of a gorilla's foot planted a seed. The seed began to germinate. Pamela sought images and researched information to explore that idea. From that day on, her thoughts went back to gorillas with toenails and followed it to other animals with toenails, to animals with other kinds of feet, to imaginary creatures. Her wakeful mind has continued to refine her thinking in the past year and has categorized animal feet and classified animals and imaginary creatures by their feet.

Here are some questions to ponder on whether or not we are fostering real learning:

Is there time in the day for children to explore, think, wonder, and ponder?

Would your books fall into the category of a compendium of facts or ideas clothed in story

Are books, things, and things you do laid out in such away that there are no neat categories?

Is what you present wide and varied, eclectic, written with literary power?

Do you focus on getting something out of your student or seeing how the mind acts upon ideas?

Do you learn new things every week?

What do you value more, process or product?

Does you student ...
  • ask what a word means?
  • make connections between books that you never noticed?
  • ask you questions that have nothing to do with what you are studying?
  • use words you have never taught them explicitly?
  • desire to explore topics you are studying during free time?
  • act out a story or historical event for fun?
  • follow an idea and refine it into new ways of thinking?
  • look forward to starting a new book or feel sad when a beloved one is finished?
  • live in a larger world of ideas?
  • grow more flexible in their thinking?
  • ask questions that have nothing to do with anything you have ever done or read?

1 comment:

Bonnie said...

Those are GREAT questions even to ask of myself while reading books. Thanks.
I always marvel at Pamela. Tell her!