Student Engagement

3 Types of Unintentional Learning (And How to Make Them Intentional)

You can plan for soft skills, what’s on your walls, and even teachable moments.

December 19, 2016

Last summer I had a wonderfully productive garden in my backyard. I cared for each plant individually and at harvest time, I was rewarded with enough tomatoes and beans to can many quarts. 

The hottest month is July in Texas, and the plants withered and their growing season ended. Eventually, I had barren dirt again, and in an effort to enrich the soil for next year’s garden, I composted peelings, leftovers, and watermelon and cantaloupe rinds that we enjoyed in the hot weather. 

As it turned out, it began cooling down and we had several days of rain. Would you believe that the extra seeds from the cantaloupe and watermelon sprouted and began growing? Now the once barren dirt is covered by lush green vines and producing cantaloupes and watermelons that I had not intentionally planted. 

Just as those watermelons and cantaloupe came up on their own, I thought about how this concept works with my students.

I deliberately teach my students and seat them in the spots where I believe that they could be the most productive. Then I inspire them to work hard, learn hard, and produce abundantly. Once the students have achieved learning objectives, I move on to the next learning phase. But in all that learning, I notice that my students have developed skills and habits that I did not directly or even intentionally teach them.

I believe that there are three types of unintentional learning that goes on in the classroom:

  1. Teachable Moments
  2. Pervasive Learning
  3. Soft Skills Learning

1. Teachable Moments

We are all aware of the teachable moment, and most of you reading this have experienced it firsthand. We know that one of the best opportunities for students to learn is when they are asking questions, so we make time for this in each lesson. Some questions can be off topic, and just like unwanted weeds, we pull them out and redirect the students’ attention to continue our planned and deliberate teaching (gardening). But most questions bring forth deeper clarity for the learners in the room, and sometimes there’s the ripe question that elicits deeper questions and understanding. There’s nothing like that moment when a revelation happens for multiple students in the room.

2. Pervasive, Unintentional Learning

This type of learning happens when students look around at the classroom walls and read what has been strategically placed there (sort of like what happens at a savvy dentist’s office). When the dentist is getting the tools ready, we lie back and stare at the ceiling where the dentist has deliberately placed a chart on how to floss correctly.

I propose that we decrease the motivational cat and aphorism posters. Instead, let’s put up only student-made posters that chart the concepts and ideas they have mastered so that in the extra moments of class a student can reflect on what he or she has already learned.

When the students master the argumentative essay, a poster charting the key learning about that should be placed on the classroom wall. This chart could be a bubble map of the elements of effective argumentative writing. As the year goes by, the walls will be covered in posters that show the concepts and skills the students have successfully acquired, which further cements their knowledge.

3. Learning of Soft Skills

The third type of unintentional learning relates to soft skills. I believe these 10 soft skills help students be effective in college and careers: 

  • Analytical Thinkers: They think about the parts and pieces of the whole.
  • Critical Thinkers: They think about effectiveness and validity.
  • Problem Solvers: They creatively find solutions.
  • Inquisitive Thinkers: They are intensely curious.
  • Opportunistic Thinkers: They take advantage of new learning opportunities.
  • Flexible Thinkers: They are resilient enough to cope with delayed success and ambiguity.
  • Open-minded Thinkers: They learn from multiple sources, even critical feedback.
  • Teachable Thinkers: They have a learning mindset.
  • Risk-taking Thinkers: They are open to possible failure.
  • Expressive Thinkers: They communicate effectively in spoken and written forms.

These soft skills most often take a secondary role, like an additional learning by-product, but they can be designed as the direct intent of the learning activities. For example, let’s say the main topic being studied in a world history class is identifying the events that promoted the rise of the Syrian empire. To intentionally teach soft skills, a teacher may put students together in homogenous groups by skill level to create a graphic representation of this event. Students in each group would be given roles to accomplish the task together. Each member of the group would first analyze the task, effectively express their thoughts with other group members, be open-minded and accept the ideas of the other group members, be willing to take a risk and propose possible events, and be critical about selecting the best events for inclusion in the presentation.

This has worked well in my classroom. For example, as the students were ostensibly learning a grammar concept, students that were normally grouped together in heterogeneous groups (but were now in homogenous groups), demonstrated different leadership and soft skills that were unseen up until that point. I remember being astounded as a group of students who typically struggled outperformed a higher-achieving group because the leadership and risk-taking opportunity patterns were different. In heterogeneous groups, these students often allowed the more dominating, successful students to take over, but combined with less assertive students, they were able to take risks, be flexible in their learning, and express themselves effectively. 

In another example, I observed an elementary teacher that was teaching vocabulary to her second-grade students. Each student had created a foldable dictionary out of paper bags. She required the students to provide a non-linguistic representation depicting each word, the dictionary definition, and a sentence using the word, as well as antonyms, homonyms, and synonyms for each word. 

What was really impressive was how she organized her classroom into stations. Her students completed each section of their dictionary at a different station, and each station had a student leader. One student was an expert at finding words in a thesaurus and assisting other students in doing the same. Another student helped others create sentences. When I visited the classroom, one student was assigned to be my guide and explain to me what they were doing. This teacher taught the content of vocabulary, but at the same time, she also taught many of the soft skills that help students become successful learners.

Captains of Their Own Ships

The key to unintentional learning is that the teacher provides opportunities for students to direct their own learning. When students are placed in a learning-rich environment, provided a supportive forum to take risks and ask questions, and given certain control over their learning, long-lasting and deeper learning can really take root. The trick however is that the teacher must intentionally prepare their classrooms and learning activities to harvest the second round of learning—that which is unintentional.

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