Friday, August 30, 2013

Keys to Learning Well

In the school’s mission statement is the phrase “Enabling youth to learn how to learn …” What does that mean? And how do you know when it happens?

Mission statements are notoriously imprecise and aspirational. But that is on purpose. The nature of a mission statement is to draw us forward, set us on a path, provide a fixed direction, point out the mountain we would like to reach. Some companies even have two mission statements, the official one and the unofficial one. For example, this is the case for Google. Their official mission statement is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The unofficial one, officially recorded in its 2004 IPO prospectus, is “Don’t Be Evil.” The first statement is predictable and rather dull. But the second is quite interesting, because it causes the reader to think about what that phrase could mean in an organization.

Our own school’s mission statement has aspects of both in it. Schools are about youth and about learning. That much is fairly obvious. What is less obvious, but all the more important and perhaps worthy of reflection, is the fact that one part of our mission is to enable youth to learn how to learn. The focus of the learning is on learning. This focus is part of the educational environment, whereby not only are facts, figures, rules, systems, insights, relationships, etc. learned outright. But within that process there is an intentional effort to enable students to discover the ways that they are involved in the process of learning itself, are agents in the skill of learning, and thereby may become more deliberate about the learning that they want to accomplish.

The more we know about our own learning process, the better learners we become.  For example, I know that I need a quiet environment in order to learn well, and that I need to “ramp up” my learning process so that I can get to a level of engagement that puts things into a higher gear. The simplest example is from many years ago, when I delayed writing my PhD dissertation (as most candidates do at some point in the process) until deadlines loomed and something radical was needed. After thinking about my best learning process, the solution appeared. For six weeks, I put myself into a Trappist monastery in California, pictured above, where for five weeks (the first week was for ramping up) I worked calmly but intensely for many hours of the day in a profound, natural silence punctuated only by prayers and meals. At the end of that time, 80% of the dissertation was done, basically due to zero radio or TV, simple vegetarian food, a peaceful setting, and an inescapable personal regimen – no distractions possible – punctuated by good prayer and liturgy.

That’s only one example, and it may only apply to me. Your way of learning best is likely to be quite unique. But when you identify it, the more you may pursue it, and the better you will learn. A friend of mine who became the CEO of a large company showed me a room next to his third-story office that was empty except for a window overlooking the outside and two rows of airplane seats. He told me that he thinks best on airplanes, and so he had this little room built for his private thinking and planning time. He, in fact, had learned how he learned best.

When you learn how you learn, you will learn more quickly, deeply, and intensely. Each new insight about your own learning will add to your personal set of learning tools, ready to go into action when needed. How to start? Take a short but serious inventory after you have learned something really well. What allowed that to happen? Push, push, push for the reasons. Those results, in the long run, will be more valuable than whatever it was that you learned really well. Like a coach who is able to reflect back the small movements or behaviours that will lead to greater performance, by being your own “learning” coach, you will identify your own best behaviours for learning.

If someone told us that we could take a pill to help us learn better, as in the movie Limitless (2011), we would probably buy a year’s supply. Actually, we have those pills already inside of us. They just need to be identified and brought into the light of day. After that, it’s mostly “Take as needed.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting People to Learn

“There is no system in the world, or any school in the country, that’s better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. … What great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. In the end, education is about learning. If there's no learning going on, there's no education going on. The whole point of education is to get people to learn....” (Ken Robinson, TED talk “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.”

All of us have been both teachers and students. Most of us have been professional students for a good part of our lives. We have gone to school longer than most people have held their jobs. We know how to be a student. And so we also have a pretty fair grasp of what it means to be educated, a notion and reality that is likely to grow with age and wisdom, although not without some sense of irony.  "Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously." (G K Chesterton)

The idea that teachers are key to any school is something that is too obvious to be noticed. Like the advantage of having an opposable thumb, or the fact that our eyes work so well with our brain, or the reality that things like faith, hope, and love are part of being human, it’s one of those facts of our existence that is as comfortably taken for granted as the clothing we wear. The founder of the Brothers, however, started this entire Lasallian movement by not taking teaching for granted, but rather building his schools on the trust, community, spirit, enthusiasm, talents, and aspirations of those young men in 17th Century France who believed that education could transform lives. Ever since, every school that claims John Baptist de La Salle as its inspiration and guide has discovered the truth and power of the key insight that good teachers bring learning to life in young people.

Ken Robinson in his talk also shares contemporary insights that De La Salle would recognize. For example, Sir Robinson says that high-performance school systems “individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality and their creativity.” De La Salle said 300 years ago that teaching involves “knowing each individually and discerning the right way to guide them.” He advocated the use of visual instruction, the incorporation of skits, dialogues, or songs to help children capture moral lessons, and included training in practical arts such as needlework, keeping accounts, and life skills. Good manners were also instilled as a necessary part to Christian upbringing.

Sir Robinson states that high-performance schools “attribute a very high statue to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can't improve education if you don't pick great people to teach and if you don't keep giving them constant support and professional development.” De La Salle believed the same, telling his teachers that they followed in the footsteps of the apostles, given the gift of instruction, exhortation, and teaching. (M 78.2, 145.3, 193.2) Such "great graces from God" entail a grave responsibility. "It is God himself who has led them to you; it is God who makes you responsible for their salvation [Heb.13: 17].” Professional development in the ministry of teaching was equated with personal development in the journey of following God. De La Salle and the early Brothers are credited with initiating the movement for “normal schools” that trained teachers, having done so for non-Brothers and Brothers alike during his lifetime and far beyond.

The point is simple: Great learning depends on great teachers, and this has always been the case, whether in the 17th century or in the 21st century. The deeper realities persist about teaching and learning. Through great teachers, students have the opportunity to discover glimpses of the Promised Land and to be drawn in by the numinous mystery of God’s presence within themselves and within the people and the worlds that they encounter.

What a wonderful responsibility, mysterious adventure, and great vocation!