Learning in Present Time

In my last blog post we reversed the flight path of education to focus on the students in our classes as members of a community worth connecting with now, not in some speculative future. That satisfied me for a few minutes…but pedagogical malaise soon set in again. We can connect to the kids all semester long, but about what, exactly?

Too often, particularly in our high schools, we march through ideas like tourists through museums on a tight itinerary. Give the exhibit a glance. Listen to a short curatorial spiel. Test it. Forget it. The Zeigarnik Effect. Backwards planning is the solution I’ve always used to address this problem.

I applied principles from backwards planning at a workshop recently. I was asked to lead sessions with high school teachers on “engaging students intellectually in the curriculum” and “having them explain their ideas.” I set up a simple graphic organizer to illustrate how teachers could themselves explain the big ideas of their curricula and how these ideas could invite student investigation. But I couldn’t just throw it at the teachers. I had to model it. I put myself in the place of a Living Environment teacher, and this is what I wrote at first, the graphic organizer in bold, my modeling in italics:

The biggest idea of my curriculum is evolution. Important details to keep in mind about this idea are:

(a) It explains the many forms of life we see around us.

(b) It explains how life forms adapt – or don’t – to their environments.

(c) It is useful to know in many fields, from psychology to medicine, where, for instance, we have to develop vaccines to combat newly formed viruses.

It invites deep investigation because of its ability to illuminate so many things of importance to us and because of what it has to say about human nature itself – historically, physically, emotionally, socially…. Without an understanding of the mechanisms of evolution, we wouldn’t be able to make good decisions about how to protect our environment or be healthy in an ever-changing world.

Okay. All right. Good enough. But I was still feeling uneasy.

As I delivered my workshop repeatedly to small groups of teachers throughout the day, I wrote while they wrote, and this came out:

“Actually, it’s because evolution is such an amazing and mysterious idea, and its discovery was so revolutionary. We were just sitting around being our species with all of our traits that we assumed were just given to us straight up by a supreme being, until we looked closely at the interconnections – similarities and differences – between species and we took a closer gander at the fossil record and we went, ‘Whoa, Doggies, there’s a pattern here! So many similarities between forms, differences explained by environment, increasing complexity through the eons!’ The light bulb lit up. (A gas light, in Darwin’s time.) An idea was born!”

With that, my worry dissolved. Why? It was as if I were having the ideas myself. In my own vulnerable voice. An apt quote from Goethe reads: “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” I understood now that students need more than rationales. They need the opportunity to experience the discovery as if for the first time. They must have that light bulb moment for themselves.

Ponder the benefits. Having wise ideas injects dopamine into our neural networks, allowing us to feel pleasure when we make discoveries. (A fortuitous product of natural selection, speaking of evolution.) Solid neural structures are built, producing a long-term love of learning, and, no coincidence, better standardized test scores. (Less teacher burnout, too, into the bargain.)

The driving question thus becomes, “How can we change the structures of our students’ brains by engaging them in the discovery of important ideas as if for the first time?” (Imagine the horrible and all-too-common alternative: structuring young brains with other sensations: boredom, frustration, fear….) Doubtless there are many possible answers, but the one I favor is writing: repeated, ungraded, exploratory writing. Look back at my own experience: while it may have seemed the discovery came in a flash of insight, it actually emerged during a process. I had time to inquire, to explore, to let the connections make themselves evident.

Writing is a great way create the neural “flow” that, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is necessary for students to build intrinsic and long-lasting motivation for learning: “The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be…” (http://www.edutopia.org/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-motivating-people-learn) Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence calls it “The joy of flow.”

No boredom, no fretting when you’re in such flow. As teachers we can escape the trap of time that makes ideas from the past smell musty and that alienates students because we’re focused on their futures instead of their present-time experiences. The past and future take care of themselves when students write to discover great ideas as if for the first time.

Imagine this scenario: In a backwards-planning process you articulate what makes the central concept of your course or unit so interesting and worth investigating. You hook the students through a provocation. As you “uncover” the facts of your unit lesson after lesson, you routinely give the students class time to connect, explore, discover and reflect through writing-to-learn exercises like “directed freewrites”. All of this in the context of a project or some other meaningful summative assessment.

Giving students opportunities to “go with the flow” of their own minds and discover for themselves the world’s great ideas – the notion makes me rest easy…for the time being.