Archive for August, 2011

Where Does Learning Need To Go?

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

One question I occasionally ask parents new to Trinity is: “What are your hopes and dreams for your children?”  The answers are wide-ranging, touching, revealing.  Few speak about a prestigious MBA or number one-ranked medical school, though those may be unspoken assumptions for some.  Many talk about kindness, about wanting their children to know the world is bigger than their own egos, about service, about spiritual awareness.

Whatever the hopes and dreams, some form of learning has to be involved in moving toward our goals – it’s just in the human equation.  To get from A to B and B to Z, we have to learn.  Not to diminish our species’ uniqueness, but the squirrels in our backyards face the same challenge.

Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences, and may involve synthesizing different types of information.  That’s a simple Wikipedia definition.  (My philosophy/psychology degrees from ages ago would lead me to definitions so tedious even I would stop reading them.)

Understandably, learning has had direct associations with schooling.  It starts at 8 and ends at 3, occurs in blocks, behind doors too often closed.  But we know better.  In a highly engaging book, The Social Animal, David Brooks cites neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s statistic that fetuses grow about 250,000 neurons – brain cells – a minute.  So by the time a child is born, his brain has over 20 billion brain cells.  That’s the potential for monumental learning, learning that occurs all the time, everywhere.  But while we have accumulated significant data about the brain, we really know little current research about learning that has transferred to the classroom.

So, where does learning need to go at the pre-K to 12 levels of education?  Let me note three responses, all meant to open, not resolve, that question.

  1. 21st Century Education — While the phrase has become clichéd, 21st Century skills does carry meaning.  Though some are far from new, their application has become pressingly relevant.  Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, astute oral and written communication, dealing effectively and ethically with a digital world – these and other aspects of learning are increasingly necessary for students.  Two sources are especially interesting in this regard.  For a good overview, read a substantial excerpt from 21st Century Skills by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel at http://21stcenturyskillsbook.com/pdf/21stCS_excerpt.pdf.   Also, many of our faculty and parents have read a provocative, widely recognized book by Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap.  I found this interview with Dr. Wagner to be relevant: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2008/08/20_wagner.php.
  2. Personalized Learning – Education in general has long been modeled on a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.  We now know too much about the individual brain, about learning styles, about multiple intelligences, and about the complexity of gifts, talents, and struggles that children possess to continue that approach.  Personalizing the learning process is something Trinity has been studying – and it is a process that is difficult to define and complex to implement.  Though we are a leader in elementary education in that regard, we are not alone in the endeavor.  The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), though primarily dedicated to public education, publishes some excellent work that should provoke important discussion in all schools.  Click here to read ASCD’s list of “10 Components of Personalized Learning,” some of which are certainly relevant for private-independent education.  http://www.ascd.org/news-media/Press-Room/News-Releases/Education-Leaders-Identify-Top-10-Components-of-Personalized-Learning.aspx.
  3. Technology – The word conjures up everything from enthusiasm to fear, and from transformation to “I’m-going-to-throw-that-cell-phone-away-if-you-don’t-talk-to-me!”  Technology, however, is increasingly like electricity, or silverware, or automobiles.  It’s here, it’s gear, we need to get used to it.  Like driving on a scary highway on a Friday at five, technology does come with threats we have to confront.  Living in a state of anxiety and fear, however, merely clouds our judgment and impedes reasonable progress.  Our children are making use of digital technology in ways that will solve some of the problems people in my generation created.  They will make mistakes, just as we their parents did.  It is our children’s creativity, their critical thinking, and their gift for problem solving that will ultimately trump the downsides of technology.  Noted British educator and thinker, Sir Ken Robinson, who many of our teachers heard at a conference last year, wrote a captivating book called The Element that speaks of the importance of seeking one’s true dreams.

“Education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” – Sir Ken Robinson, The Element

These three reflections merely point, suggest, and hint at where learning and education might be headed in the 21st Century.  Many other perspectives and observations would be just as valid.  What seems no longer sufficient, however, is to say, “What was good enough for me is good enough for my kids.”  Too much of everything in the world has changed in the last decade or two.  Just try tossing your smart phone and putting that ten-pound brick of a 1995 phone back up to your ear, for instance.

Our students need us as adults to be role models who learn, think, and adapt – without losing our values.  They don’t really need to be baby Einsteins and kindergarten Mozarts.  They’ll do fine without our pushing academic stuff at them before they’ve exited their diapers.  Their brains develop at an astonishing rate, and take in galaxies of information.  Our role is to help them transform that information into knowledge, knowledge that eventually has a chance to become wisdom.

As adults, our brains contain about 100 billion neurons.  That should give us ample resources to hope and dream for our children – and to support them as they move into the 21st Century with an education that has provided the confidence and competence not only to succeed, but to thrive as truly good people.