Do Teachers Over-plan Learning Opportunities?

Teaching can be a difficult process, as we desire our students to get the most out of their learning. We want them to experience transformational changes, whereby they begin to change the way in which they “know” things (Kegan, 2008). We want them to challenge ideas, pose questions, and be creators. In order for this to happen, I believe students need to be actively engaged in their learning. Illeris (2008) defines learning as “any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change (p. 7). Reflecting on this definition and my teaching practices, leads me to the assumption that I need to provide meaningful and relevant learning opportunities for my students. What would this look like in the classroom? Hands-on experiences, real-life situations, interest-driven products, and ideas in the creation realm come to thought immediately. But sometimes I wonder as teachers, do we over-think learning? Do we try too hard to create meaningful learning opportunities which instead result in a superficial experience?

“But situations that bring learning into focus are not necessarily those in which we learn most, or most deeply…Learning is something we can assume – whether we see it or not, whether we like the way it goes or not, whether what we are learning is to repeat the past or to shake it off. Even failing to learn what is expected in a given situation usually involves learning something else instead.” (Wenger, 2008, p. 214)

Wenger’s description of learning above made me think about a personal classroom experience. We had read the story Toto in class, where a timid Ugandan boy finds the courage to overcome his fears of going into the field, and ends up rescuing a trapped baby elephant. I always find that stories involving animals help children to develop a sense of empathy, but what I didn’t realize in this instance, was that my students would be outraged about the cruelty involved in hunting animals. What started off as a simple story, in which I had planned “meaningful learning activities” to occur afterwards, led to discussions of animals cruelty, conservation, education for others, and continued on to animals in the zoo and whether this was in fact another form of cruelty. My students then decided to have a debate about whether or not zoos should even exist.

The point in me sharing this experience is that I think all too often as teachers we try to stretch learning experiences for our students. We want them to have great opportunities and in so we plan accordingly. But perhaps within a classroom environment that supports a culture of care and openness, and welcomes new ideas, learning will just happen.

Sources:
Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951 (Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 14 and 15 [5 and 11].

Changing How You “Know”

Have you ever had that moment in your classroom where a student questions something you have said or taught, which causes you to redesign your way of teaching? Have you ever had an experience in your personal life where you question and reform your current values system? Either of these experiences can be described as transformative learning, which Kegan describes as an epistemological change that causes individuals to change “how” they know things. “This shift results from a critical examination of one’s own assumptions, values, and beliefs, and of the foundations and expectations of the system in which one operates” (Nemec, 2012, pg. 478).

A moment in time when I believe I experienced transformative learning was after my first trip to Africa. I embarked on a journey to volunteer teach in Tanzania, which I believe has ever changed the way in which I view the world and has altered my values system. I taught in a rural school where I was the second “white” visitor they had. Besides the obvious barriers, and the adjustments I had to make to my teaching abilities, there is nothing I would change about my experience. In a village where bathrooms were rare, food was a scarcity, and the cosmopolitan lifestyle was nonexistent, every person I encountered was joyous and appreciative. It made me reconsider the material goods that I had placed value on (and perhaps which our society places value on), and instead to be thankful for the small but meaningful things, like family and friends. When I came back to Canada, my perspectives about what I wanted out of my life transformed from the focus of material items to loving relationships and the simpler life.

Research suggests that transformative learning “has been critiqued, tested, revised, and retested throughout the past three decades to arrive at a definitive framework for describing how adults learn best” (Kitchenham, 2008, pg. 119-120). However, what factors cause a transformational change? We know that the individual as well as social, cultural, familial, and other factors allow for reflection upon changes, but how does this change begin in the first place? Are there individuals who never experience a transformational change? If so, why? Do they lack a growth mindset or are they so fixed in their beliefs that they are not open to it?

Although my questions will remain unanswered, as an educator I will still strive to provide opportunities for my students’ values and beliefs to be challenged and questioned, through exposure to current events, alternative ways of thinking, critical analysis, and individual reflection.

Sources:
Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951 (Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 14 and 15 [5 and 11].

Kitchenham, A. (2008). The evolution of John Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education, 6(2), 104-123. Retrieved from http://usm.maine.edu/olli/national/postConference/2012_confWorkshops/workshopMaterials/Jon%20Neidy/The%20Evolution%20of%20John%20Mezirow’s%20Transformative%20Learning%20Theory.pdf

Nemec, P.B. (2012). Transformative learning. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35(6), 478-479. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=c6456d81-0fe0-4dc6-ac6f-d70d0deace7d%40sessionmgr4005&vid=2&hid=4112

“Rat” Removal and Transformative Learning

In the first chapter of Contemporary Theories of Learning, by K. Illeris, he outlines the four types of learning that individuals can experience: cumulative, assimilative, accommodative, and transformative. The one that peeked my interest and the level that I would like my students to attain is the transformative, as this is where reflection, perspective changing, and thorough learning occurs. Yet, after reading the chapter, I struggled to understand how exactly this would look in the classroom and whether or not it is attainable. Can we expect our students to have these transformative moments as learners? Or is this process that occurs throughout a school career?

I came across an article by K.P. King that deepened my understanding of transformative learning. Although her article emphasized this learning through adult educators’ experiences with technology, it provided insights into what this would look like at the elementary school level. Below is an outline of the stages of transformation as summarized by K.P. King:

photo (3)

From reflecting on this chart, one idea of what it would look like in the classroom is through genius hour. Through genius hour it is obvious that students experience several moments of uncertainty, but through exploring, reflecting, and problem solving are able to rationalize new ideas that change their perspectives. However, I am still grappling with other examples of how this transformation learning would occur in elementary school children.

Throughout chapter one, another concept that stood out for me was the difference between defense learning and resistance learning. I initially was puzzled with how to distinguish between the two. A student could come to class disengaged because he/she does not understand a concept, or it could be from an earlier event that occurred in his/her day. In the busy and always lacking time day of a teacher, how do we find means to discover whether a student is demonstrating defense or resistance learning?

During the last school year, I read a wonderful book called, You Can’t Teach Through a Rat, by Marvin Berkowitz. Berkowitz acknowledged the idea that students come into classrooms with “their lives,” thus are not always ready to learn and instead can put up defensive learning mechanisms. As teachers, we are responsible to remove, what Berkowitz called “rats” in order for learning to occur, and through the process listed below:

Berkowitz, 2012, pg 17

Berkowitz, 2012, pg 17

Although this may seem like a daunting task, if we ultimately want our students to be active learners, we need to set them up for success. We need to show them that we care not only for them a learner, but also as a person. I think only then can true learning occur.

Sources:
Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951 (Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 14 and 15 [5 and 11].

King, K. P. (2002). A journey of transformation: A model of educators’ learning experiences in educational technology. In J. M. Pettit & R. P. Francis (Eds.). Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Adult Education Research Conference, (pp. 195-200). Retrieved from: http://www.adulterc.org/Proceedings/2002/papers/King.pdf

Berkowitz, M.W. (2012). You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Boone, NC, USA: Character Development Group Inc.