What is learning? I immediately recall a famous excerpt from a concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), a Supreme Court case about obscenity:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of obscenity], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Similar to Justice Potter and obscenity, I know learning when it’s happening. Sometimes it is fun and obvious that I am learning–when my head hurts and I’ve been concentrating for a long time (often accompanied by crankiness), or I am at a dance class or mountain biking for the first time. In these situations I can, after a few hours, perform a task I could not previously do. Often there are accompanying bumps and bruises, such as when I learned to mountain bike. Similarly, I know when learning is happening in my classroom. I can feel it. I just know.
Psychology seems to agree on a scientific definition of learning. In The Science of Psychology (2004), Robin D. Raygor, Ph.D. defines learning as [a] relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience (p. 236). This is a good, basic definition and melds well with Gee’s theory that learning is about finding patterns and making connections, though he is very specific about how this happens. Sometimes the behavior is being able to solve a math problem that was previously impossible; sometimes it is over a long time, like learning to read a map through repetition, practice and mistakes.
Wrong patterns are easy to make, and this, too, is learning. One of the hardest parts of learning is un-learning wrong or ineffective methods. (Gee might say we have to re-pattern the brain in these cases). In my math classroom I find that this is absolutely the most difficult task I face. It is much easier to teach someone something they know nothing about, about which they have no patterns formulated, than it is to get a student to see that their pattern is incorrect. It is the same experience as meeting someone for the first time and hearing their name wrong–every time I see them after that I get their name wrong. Unless I have another experience that goes deep enough to dislodge the old pattern, I will continue to call them the wrong name.
This unwillingness to consider new patterns may be called “Lack of Paying Attention,” but it also can be called the mindset of a novice. This is fascinating to me, as I teach novices most of the time. Over and over again I have students the would swear on a stack of Bibles that their method works correctly every single time and that I am teaching it wrong. It does not occur to the novice that her method may be incorrect. The novice is in a hurry, which I believe is driven by an underlying belief that experts know everything quickly. Often my students will shame me when I don’t know an answer, or I pause before I answer them: “Geez, Ms. Z, you’re supposed to be an expert?”
Experts, on the other hand, have a good sense of their place in the world. Ironically, they may be the leading expert in a field of study, but they are acutely aware of where lie the limits of their expertise. The buzz word is metacognition —the awareness of what one does not know (my own definition). Not only do experts know what they don’t know, they also draw pictures, take their time, read carefully and chunk information. The skills they use to comb through information are what have made them an expert in their field and what allow them to succeed. This transfer is, in my opinion, the whole point of education: to teach skills in math or English or art class that will transfer to any subject or activity students may encounter later.
Finally, I am so grateful to be learning this in a program on technology. I find that it grounds me and reminds me of my true purpose in teaching It would be easy to get caught up and carried away with the technology tools, but I find that when I am refreshed on how people learn and their accompanying mindset, I recalibrate and am able to keep technology in its proper place: always in support of the content.