by Randy Fairfield, 11/9/17
I’ve heard many people say that the most important thing they learned from college was how to learn. That got me thinking: Why does learning this incredibly important skill have to wait until college? Is it possible to empower students by teaching them this skill during high school? Middle school? Elementary school? Even younger? I believe it’s not only possible, but that it’s of the utmost importance.
For me personally, I started to feel empowered to take charge of my own learning during my senior year of high school. My mom pulled my sister and I out of school to go on a three week road trip to visit family in early January right before the conclusion of first semester. Most of my teachers grimaced that I’d be missing so much school, but since I was generally a stellar student they decided to just give me the grade I’d already earned. That is, except for my calculus teacher. He gave me an incomplete and assigned me a whole bunch of chapters to do on my own. What a jerk, right?
Once I finally mustered the intestinal fortitude necessary to teach myself calculus, I made a shocking discovery: Not only could I teach myself, I could also learn at a far quicker pace without all of the distractions and limitations that are an inherent part of being in a classroom full of students. Since I had taught myself, I felt a greater sense of pride in my understanding, and I found that my level of retention increased as well.
The discovery that I could be my own best teacher had a cascading effect on my life that reached far beyond calculus: I spent Spring Break teaching myself how to build my own website with HTML code; When a Rubik’s Cube craze hit our senior class, I figured out how to solve it on my own while the rest of the students were looking it up on YouTube; When the time came for me to file my taxes for the first time, I didn’t take them to a tax prep guy—I solved my own problem. I found some of my greatest joy simply in self-discovery and learning. What a shame that it took me so long to find it!
Now, am I advocating that the best way to teach students is to hand them a textbook and wish them well? Certainly not. Given a similar situation at a different point earlier in my life, I can’t say with certainty how I would have responded. Yet I do wonder what more my teachers could have done in response to this strange truth:
I can’t remember when or where I heard a quote like this, and I couldn’t find it with a Google search. If you can help with attribution, that’d be great.
While I sometimes feel that I was often robbed of the joy of discovery during school, I did find that joy through other outlets—video games, in particular. I’m dying for a chance to give this keynote on “What Teachers Need to Learn from Gamers”. It does not surprise me that a game like Minecraft has become so poplar, for at its core Minecraft is a game about limitless discovery.
There are a number of practical ways in which educators can tap into this human desire to discover and learn in the classroom, but it really starts with looking in the mirror. When is the last time you got excited about something and learned about it on your own? Tell your students about it! They need to hear these stories. Yet too often I hear educators complaining that they don’t have enough time to learn this or that, or that they aren’t going to attend professional development unless they’re paid. If we want our students to take ownership of their learning and become lifelong learners, we must first do so ourselves.
So with that, I encourage you to click around my website and learn a thing or to. Better yet, shut this blog off, open an application you’ve been meaning to learn, and just start clicking around and figuring stuff out on your own. It’s fun!