A Tale of Three Classes

I attended a session yesterday at the annual AIMS conference on the “brain friendly classroom.” The presenter started with the question ” What is learning?” I have been thinking about it since then. I have been telling students, parents and colleagues that school needs to be about the learning. I realized that I am not really sure what I mean. At least, I cannot come up with a definition/explanation that I find satisfying. So – rather than try to define it, I want to think about some moments in my classes today where I think learning happened.

My first class today was sophomore Modern World. We spent the first part of class debriefing the Crash Course video and responses to the essential questions about the Spanish Empire. Very traditional and yet students were engaged; they collectively knocked it out of the park. I was able to note the astute observations made by different students and they could learn from one another. Then, in preparation for a small research project involving a presentation I directed them to a blog where students had written and reflected about effective presentations (www.ageofex.wordpress.com). After reading and even leaving some comments, we talked as a class about what their presentations should and should not be. The last part of class involved students getting their groups, their empires to research and planning what each student would do before the next class. Each component here involved learning – some content, some process, some reflection.

Then I met my first section of junior US history. I gave them two options – blog work with our quadblog – reading and commenting, or working on the research for their immigration projects. Students chose both options and many did a combination of the two. They wrestled with different points of view in the blogs. They refined their research questions. They found helpful sources. In the middle of all of this someone asked about the event of a tie in the electoral college. Within a minute another student had a video answering the question and several students gathered around to watch. Learning happened.

My end of the day class – the second US history class – had the same two options as the previous class and one additional option. They could read their self-selected Fall Reading book. Whenever the class meets last period, I set time aside for students to read. Several students read the whole time. Others worked on their immigration research and talked with me about their initial findings and their next steps. Some read blog posts about today’s election. I actually took the time to read some of my book as well. One student swapped out a book he did not like for another one that interested him more. Another student discussed her two ideas with me and then decided on her topic. A third student shared the form she believes her project will take. I cannot quantify it, but I know that learning happened.

There are all kinds of things that pass for learning. Productive learning is more easily quantified through assessments. The problem is that learning takes many forms. The student engaged in a book was learning. The students hashing out effective presentations were learning. The student who wandered around the Internet moving closer to a research question was learning. Of course, the kids who reversed course on a topic or who read several blogs without commenting were also learning, I think.

So, I am really no closer to a definition. I think I am further away. How would you answer the question, “What is learning?”

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