As a mainstream education system we are very good at focusing on the to. WALT (We are learning to) can be seen at the top of many classroom boards, and as the focus on learning intentions grows this has more and more of a home. Even in my own preschool classroom there is a definite focus on learning to count, learning to write their names, and learning to speak kindly to each other. This becomes the dominant scope of learning as children get older, and by the time they enter their first full year of formal of primary school, "Learning To" takes up most of their day.
As standardised testing forms a larger and larger part of the accountability measures in our schools, "Learning About" really takes a backseat in most classrooms. We are so focused on teaching our children to so that they can succeed in the NAPLAN (here in Australia) that we forget that children love to 'learn about'. They love to learn about new places and things, get their hands dirty, and open their minds to the wonders of the world. In most classrooms that I have seen, "Learning About" takes place one afternoon per week as children engage in their weekly science lesson, if at all.
This is the part that really excites me, but that we rarely talk about or spend time thinking about in our schools. We forget that there are vehicles through which children learn. We forget that engagement is the key to great learning. Not just mere training of skills, but education that changes our children's outlook on the world and opens up their minds and hearts to the wonders around them. This is widely recognised and accepted throughout early childhood practice. Play-based learning is very popular and rightly so. I aim to make my own classroom a wonderland of learning where children feel inspired and engaged. A place that they can't wait to come back to. We engage in plenty of "learning to" and loads of "learning about". The key point that makes my classroom different from others is the variety of approaches that exist in "learning through".
I fully embrace that no two children will learn everything the same way. No two children will be interested in the same things at the same time. No two children will have the same preferences for the way that they tackle learning a new skill. Am I suggesting a free learning environment where children just please themselves? No! I think that there is a very important place for skill building in an organised, systematic way. I think that we still need teacher-lead instruction to bring us to concepts and skills that we would not be able to reach on our own. My question is, what happens after the concepts and skills have been introduced by the teacher? Are the children sent off to answer a set of pre-determined questions that all have the same answer? Is the child who "struggles" or is "behind" excited by the new learning or do they approach the task with a sense of dread, feeling that they don't quite measure up?
To expect that all children learn the same way and provide the very same learning experiences to all children might be "equal" but it is "equitable"? It is fundamentally unfair and unjust that a child who learns through experiencing life in a multisensory way is penalised because they do not learn the same way as everyone else. I reject the suggestion that 'some' children need a different approach to learning. This implies that the dominant culture of our education system is the most prevalent and therefore the right one. There are as many different ways to learn as there are children in a class.
I often marvel at the comment: "He'll do things if he's interested but otherwise won't complete the work". My first thought when I hear this is "Well, me too!" Who among us finds it easy to engage in and complete a boring task well? (Which might excite the next person, but not us). Who among us has the exact same preferences for learning as the adult working beside us? Very few. So why do we expect that we can sit children at desks all day giving them all the exact same learning experiences and think that it's enough?
Why do we continue to label kids as slow, strugglers, plodders, and unmotivated simply because they aren't engaged (either emotionally or cognitively) with the lessons available in the classroom. Neuroscience tells us that when an experience triggers an emotional response we are much more likely to remember it. What better way to help engage our children than by engaging them in real life, hands on experiences?
Okay, so I can hear many of you asking me exactly how you are supposed to manage this in your classroom.
Here's my approach, which may or may not work for you, but it's how I go about planning the next experiences to enrich learning.
1. Examine Your "Learning to" Goals: What do you want your students to be able to do at the end of your learning sequence? Let's pretend you are planning a unit on time and want to build your children's skills in automatic recall of addition facts. Let's also pretend that you're planning to teach a unit on persuasive text and teach some comprehension strategies for reading.
2. Explore What You and/or Your Students Want to Learn About: What are your plans for curriculum learning outside maths and english? Are you starting a unit on geography or history? Let's pretend that you're teaching year 3 and need to focus your geography teaching on Australia's neighbouring countries. Next, pay attention to the things that your students think are interesting. Do they love dancing, surfing, or learning languages? (If you don't know you can come up with some suggestions and see which ones they respond to). Take this information and decide on a 'learning about' goal using both your curriculum goals and the interests of your students.
3. Combine Your "Learning to" and "Learning About" Goals and Envisage an Awesome Vehicle for Learning for Your Students: If we take the pretend scenario from above we can come up with the following vehicles for learning.The usual stuff like word walls about South-East Asia - visual displays and writing activities about why it's great to go to a South-East Asian country.
Now to take it up a notch:
- Create a travel agency in your classroom complete with travel brochures, world clocks, book forms, a price board, atlas, and other items to make the experience real. Just these items alone hold implications for meeting your "learning to" and "learning about" goals. Then assign tasks (or invite student to design their own if appropriate) that are to be completed based around the travel agency. Allow students to role play for their peers and be immersed in the experience.
- Involve your students in examining the data and learning intentions so that they can contribute to the planned activities for learning.
- Ensure that there is adequate time for your students to interact with the stimulus scenario and complete tasks.
I can hear the sceptics saying "that's fun play for preschool but how is it real learning?" It is real learning when:
- You recognise that every child is on their own learning journey. They will all pass through the same points but at different times and by taking different paths.
- Students are fully aware of the learning intentions for the unit of study. They have the opportunity to participate in goal setting about their skills based on real world data that you have collected (for example, some children might be ready to learn about 24-hour time, some might be working on reading an analogue clock and some might practising durations of time - all of which can be incorporated into this learning experience).
- Students are provided with an element of choice about their learning. Use a matrix of tasks that students complete in order to meet particular goals, but provide a range of alternatives that students can chose from. Just having choice, even if they have to all do all of the tasks in the end, increases engagement.
- Students understand that their learning is their responsibility and that you are there to help and guide. They understand what they know and what they still have to learn. There is no guilt or shame in saying "I am still learning that" because it's followed up with "...and I know how I am going to do it".
- You can demonstrate how the experiences have resulted in growth in knowledge and skills that can be measured.
There are so many interesting ways for students to show what they know other than writing an essay or article. A student who is a developing reader might use YouTube to access information and then make a television commercial on their ipad to demonstrate what they have learned. They would still produce a written piece of work along the way but they would have built so much understanding of the topic that the writing will come so much easier than if they had been asked to just read a passage and summarise it.
I know that there are challenges when approaching this kind of teaching. I have heard it said that it is so time consuming to prepare the resources and experiences. In short, yes it does take a lot of time, but the engagement that results is well worth the effort. Seeing children come alive and tuned in to learning is so satisfying and makes it wonderful to come to school every day. It can also be difficult to get others to accept that what you do is "real learning". Once you have results this will lessen, but focus on the faces of your students (and your data showing growth). These will be the measures of your success.
I wish you all luck as you seek to enhance the learning lives of your students.