Learning as Transformation

I love to write, although I struggle with it. As a teacher and graduate student, there is certainly a great deal of opportunity to do so. Sometimes when I write, however, I will often put down a simple word that I learned years ago and wonder, “is that how it’s really spelled?” The other day, I was writing a letter of gratitude to a colleague and I wrote the word “grateful.” I literally stared at the word for five minutes, second guessing myself on not only its spelling but its meaning and etymology.
Prussian Army at Battle of Sedan – September 1st,  1870
From: http://www.francoprussianwar.com
I suspect we, teachers, administrators, school owners, need to do this type of reflection about some of the concepts we associate with education. One of the concepts I like to reflect upon is the notion of “learning.” We tend to toss this term around quite a bit within the field of education, assuming perhaps that we have a collective understanding. We refer to students as “learners,” we design assessment tools to see what has been learned, and we attend professional development sessions professing to shed new light on what it means to learn.
But I don’t think we all agree on what it means to learn. Frank Smith, in his book The Book of Learning and Forgetting (1998), offers two prevalent understandings of learning. The first is what he calls the Official Theory of learning. This understanding equates the learning process with the accumulation of knowledge through hard work, through cramming, and through memorization. If a learner does not succeed, it is because he or she has not worked hard enough. The other view of learning is referred to as the Classical Theory of learning. By this, we are always learning – through our interactions with each other and through experience. Students learn they are confident, when they own the process, and when they are connected with others. How do some people become so knowledgable about football? Did they take a test? Did they work hard? I am not so sure.
The Official Theory is most likely what we were accustomed to in our experience. This model was designed. It is not innate in the human experience. In fact, as Smith suggests, it was a design borrowed from the Prussian Army in the 19th century. Curriculum developers noticed that the Prussian soldiers were well trained and a menacing fighting force and thought that this could easily be applied to the notion of learning.
I tend to side with the meaning of learning derived from the Classical Theory, that we learn through experience – both good and bad. Sometimes we even learn bad things. I would take this understanding a bit further, however, and suggest that for learning to take place, we need to be transformed. Our understanding of the world must be shaken. We must go through a state of disequilibrium, ask questions, become frustrated, and then seek answers so that we are in equilibrium, for a moment.
For learning of this type to take place, firstly, we need to understand the role of education. In my mind, that is to foster the development of agents of change. My philosophy of education sees learning and transformation as a means of making the world a more equitable place for all living species. Secondly, we need to engage students and use their experiences to create inquiry and further educative experiences. Dewey and Freire talked a great length about this process. This requires that learning communities negotiate difficult, profound, and adult questions which drive the learning process. It also means that learning communities need to release their findings and new knowledge into the public realm, as this makes the learning more authentic and provides an intense public scrutiny. It also suggests to learners that their thinking and curiosity is meaningful.

Through driving questions and authentic, public feedback, we can provide students with educative experiences that allow them to see themselves as dynamic agents of social change. They become transformed and become thirsty to tackle new problems, empathize with the most vulnerable in our society, and change the destructive path we are currently on. In this context, learning is transformation. Perhaps we should leave the term learning behind and focus on creating environments for the transformation of learners and society.

What is 21st Century Learning?

Today I had the opportunity to sit down with a graduate class at the University of Manitoba. The course is looking at curriculum and curriculum design. I was asked to talk about 21st century learning. I am not really sure myself! Below is the process we went through to get at the heart of this nebulous term. Group members and people in the general public are asked to comment on what they feel 21st century learning is all about.

Initial Thoughts

At the beginning, we needed to start thinking about four important topics: Learning, Teaching, our Philosophies of Education, and 21st Century Learning.

Change in knowledge, understanding, meaning, engagement, needs of the child, expression, problem-solving, inquiry, decision-making, world, the other, environment. Developing the mind, thinking. Situation. Perspective. Acquisition of skills and knowledge, self-actualization. Relationships. Learner takes action.

What is my Philosophy of Education?: Joyful, constructivist, humanist, integration, synthesis of philosophy, complex creatures. Arena to foster need of expression/creativity. Safe supportive environment so students can become strong individuals and part of a community. Subversion, change in society, sustainability, citizenship, inquiry-based, social reconstruction. Humanistic. This is the most important.

Teaching: facilitation, feedback, engagement. Leadership, compassionate, dynamic, journey. asking questions, creating culture and climate. Learning is visible, needs of the child. Guide. Sharing power for creation of knowledge. Supporting needs. Relationship development for the purposes of constructing knowledge. Values/Virtues. Modelling behaviours and attitudes. Not indoctrination.

21st Century Learning: Critical thinking, collaboration, empathy, reflective thinking, literacy/ICT. Theory and practice, citizenship. Maximize oneself, with internal and external. Solve problems in the future. Redesigning, unpacking, variety of learning strategies, technology. Using resources to live sustainably, communication, innovation FUTURE?? Transformation. Literacy (new), Modes etc. Democratic.

Crowd Source
Then we needed to ask teachers from around the world what they thought…

Learn Unlearn Relearn

Matt’s Perspective

Then we needed to do some research…

Born to Learn from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Technology is a Tool

Ian Jukes
Buck Institute on Education
Frank Smith – The Book of Learning and Forgetting
Jay Roberts – Beyond Learning by Doing
Alberta Education
Canadians for 21st Century Learning

Now it’s your turn to create an understanding of what 21st century learning is! Thanks to all those who contributed and will contribute. Let’s keep the discussion going and please suggest further reading….