Monday, November 26, 2012

Benefits of Learning Together

I'll admit that my most vivid learning experiences involved someone else: a teacher, friend, parent, sibling, teammate or other.  In fact, the more I think about my most valuable learning experiences, whether it be learning a specific skill or strategy in sport, acquiring/applying knowledge about a topic, or figuring out a complex problem, someone else was involved.  Other people have been so deeply involved in my learning that even to this day I need someone to confirm, deny or clarify an idea, answer, solution or personal experience.  Sometimes just talking out my understanding to any set of ears (whether they are listening or not) or sharing an experience is enough.  It's startling how much I've relied on other people to help my learning process... and I think I'm one of the most independent learners out there.  I mean, my most recent learning accomplishment is adapting to my new role as a student support specialist.  And never once did I think I could do it alone.

This tells me one of two things.  Either I am psychologically confused about what it means to be an independent learner or I am human and have come to accept the fact that human brains are social organs that thrive on social interaction for many things.  Learning is no exception.  So if as an adult, a professional, and lifelong learner I rely on others to help me learn, why would I expect students to learn alone?  I don't.  You shouldn't.  Teachers shouldn't.  In a growing, evolving world we should help our students learn and grow together.  We should want them to discover, share, analyze, debate and discuss their learning with their classmates, teachers and families.  But in order to do this, we need to help make their learning meaningful.

Here's an idea.  The next time you're attempting to teach a lesson or start a unit, tell your students what you expect them to learn.  State very clearly what is expected, even if it means showing them the "standards" or questions that need answers.  Then, ask them how they want to learn about it and demonstrate their understanding.  Be prepared, you need to have ideas, too!  I hear from fellow teachers all too often about the "standards" and what is expected from students.  My response is becoming the same.  Tell your students what they are expected to learn and be open to their ideas in how to learn about it.  Children have some pretty great ideas.  So do teachers.  Together, they have even better ideas.  Brainstorming should be commonplace in any learning environment and students should be encouraged and coached in thinking through their thoughts.  It is acceptable to let students think up ideas that have already happened or develop a project that you (as the more experienced learner) might have already done.  The idea here is empowering students to take ownership of their learning by engaging them first-hand in responsibility for what they should be learning and how it can be done.  We learn best by doing.  (And that doesn't mean "doing" a worksheet.) It would probably be a better idea to have the students make a worksheet from scratch than to fill-in the blanks on one given by a teacher.  Even then, children would be working together.

When we learn together we communicate thoughts, discuss perspectives and share understandings.  We create disagreements that force deeper thinking, we challenge ideas and encourage greater clarity.  The benefits of learning together are incomparable to those discovered alone.  Challenge your students, teachers and parents to learn with their children.  Don't give answers, force yourself to create shared learning opportunities for students everyday.  Collaborate with each other with the goal of creating something greater together.  A group of students learning with a teacher (and yes even a group of teachers learning with a lead-teacher)  has the potential for a great many things when they all work together.