Last week I succumbed to the hype and purchased an iPhone 4S. My son begged me not to purchase one. He asked that I purchase a Droid. (He has a Droid Bionic and thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread.) I decided against it because, as tech savvy as I’d like to believe I am, I’m old fashioned. I figured that since all of my other devices were Apple products–iPod, MacBook Pro, Air, and iPad–I’d stay in my Apple lane. Yes I know. I have an Apple sickness. He was trying to convince me that Siri was weird and that your phone should not be able to talk to you. After a few minutes of debating for some reason the conversation led me to indicate that a Droid alternative must have existed as Siri’s counterpart. Shortly after that, he went upstairs to prepare for bed…or so I thought.
After about an hour, he returned excited about finding Iris–his Siri counterpart. We began testing it out. He asked me what he should ask. We asked questions like, “what’s your name,” “what’s the weather,” and “what time is it?” My favorite was when my son stated, “I love you,” and Iris replied, “Oh my. You certainly wear your heart on your sleeve, don’t you?” Eventually, I prompted my son to ask academic related questions such as, “can you help me with my homework,” to which Iris replied, “Certainly. What would you like me to help you with?”
He began asking questions about geometry–we chose that because he’s been struggling throughout the school year with being motivated and completing homework. Iris was able to respond. For those questions Iris–he later renamed her Sam– could not answer directly, she responded by providing a list of websites that provided the answers via a Google search. He then proceeded to ask U.S. History questions. He chose a simple one: “who was George Washington.” Iris provided a very robust answer that caused my son to smile widely and say, “Okay, I’m not jealous anymore.” Funny, right? But it was in that moment while laughing at my son that my belief about teaching and learning were reaffirmed; the belief that the work is in the thinking.
The world of education has been subdued by a belief–the belief that teachers teach and students learn. You may be saying, “of course that’s how school works,” but I argue that that simple statement conjures up a mental construct that has crowded out what should be happening: teachers facilitating students’ improved thinking. If we simply agree with the idea that teachers teach and students learn, then it makes it easy to believe that teachers should stand in front of the room and feed students as a mother robin feeds her young. But Siri-like technology is rendering the feeding of random facts and details to students futile. My high school aged son, in his quest to outdo me, proved that any first grader can gather random facts from the internet, and so, feeding facts and completing worksheets for 6 to 8 hours per day are useless events. They do not foster deep learning. Instead, students should be reasoning through ideas and concepts using facts and details as means to solve problems and design solutions. In 1995, this statement was produced by the Critical Thinking Foundation:
Very significant consequences follow from how students learn. The depth with which they understand anything is in direct proportion to the degree to which they have engaged in intellectual labor to figure it out for themselves. Whatever is to have meaning to them must be given meaning by them. They must work new meanings into the network of meanings they already have. They must relate new experiences to experiences they have already had. They must relate new problems to problems they have already solved. To create new meanings, to understand new experiences, to solve new problems, they must actively and intellectually participate in the “figuring out” process, going up and back between what they have already figured out and what they have not. They must do intellectual work. They must reason to learn– and to learn well they must reason well (The Art of Redesigning Instruction.)
So what now? What now is we engage in personal reflection where we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with the difficult question, “Am I really helping my students learn?” The easy response is “Yes” and then it’s followed by “but…” If you hear a “but” in your response, STOP YOURSELF. If the answer is not simply yes, then the chances are that the answer is no.
We have created an educational titanic founded upon the notion that teaching is telling. The way to turn our ship around and avoid sinking into the abyss, is to (1) commit to learning and (2) learn by reflecting. You can do this by recording your teaching and reflecting on what you see. If you do not see a significant amount of time spent on students engaging in intellectual labor–and that does not mean answering a host of questions on a photocopied sheet of paper–then your students are not engaging in deep learning.
I recently read that learning is not doing, but learning is the insight gained while reflecting after the doing. As we transform our practice, engaging in regular reflections toward the goal of professional improvement is an integral part of our professional learning. Your school should be poised to support you in this effort, but you should also be poised to support your own growth. You can begin managing your own growth by starting here.
*A clarifying note about photocopied information: It’s a worksheet when it can be substituted with technology, a textbook, written notes, or an experience. It’s a tool for learning when it is used only to capture information for research, planning or designing a solution.