Saturday, July 6, 2019

Eight Weeks of Summer: Learning Conditions

This post is week 4 of 8 in the 8 Weeks of Summer Blog Challenge for educators.

I'm continuing this challenge, answering the questions from the viewpoint of my old non-retired self. Here's this week's prompt:

What are optimal conditions in which to learn, for you, and for students?

For me, it's mostly a matter of opportunity and independence. Probably the biggest single thing I learned in college was how to teach myself, and I was born just in time for the biggest explosion of self-education resources in the history of the world. But that's as an adult, and the biggest advantage that adults have is that we rarely have to learn anything we don't want to learn.

I've always said-- I could probably learn conversational Chinese, but the time and effort involved, compared to the actual benefits, is such that I choose not to. But I'm an adult, so I can make that choice and nobody thinks worse of me. However, if a teenager made that same calculation and choice about my English class, then we might call him lazy or worse. Not that I think teens are necessarily good judges of what they do or don't need to learn for life; just that adults have a type of freedom when it comes to learning that students generally do not.

As a student, what I most needed was a safe space, security. If I spent the whole class time worrying about how other students or the teacher might react if I said X, if I had to carefully watch every single word that came out of my mouth, then it was hard to have much mental energy left to spend on paying attention to the actual lesson.

Students need to be able to work on the content-- what are adjectives, what is Hamlet's motivation, what's the best introduction to craft for an essay-- without that content mastery somehow becoming evidence about whether or not they have the right to take up space on the planet. In the quest for leverage, schools too often escalate the stakes so that school is about judging who the student is as a human being instead of letting her figure that out while feeding her brain.

I often describe education as the process of learning how to be more completely yourself, and how to be fully human in the world. That's a process that requires a broad, open playing field and an atmosphere that assures students that they are okay, and that they are going to be okay. Plus a useful balancing of the tension between order and chaos, freedom and authority.

That also means a setting that handles fundamentals-- physical safety, solid resources, food, shelter.

Plus, a teacher with expertise in the content area. It will require some combination of sage and guide, but that teacher must know the content, know the material, know what the heck she's talking about.


  1. Peter, I really enjoyed reading this post. You have some wonderful images and explanations of a healthy learning environment. The example of learning conversational Chinese as an option adults can make based on how helpful it is to them is really powerful when we consider the teenager who is not allowed to make those decisions about our classes.

    "Being more completely yourself and more fully human in the world." It sounds like your classroom would have been a lovely place to be.
    Thanks for writing!


    P.S. I'm also in the #8WeeksofSummer challenge.

  2. I would just add, besides knowing the content and how to explain it, teachers need to understand cognitive psychology about how people learn (and about child development, and adolescent psychology). I believe this strongly.