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Posts Tagged ‘learner

Recently someone remarked how her students referred to some food as “Muslim desserts”. I chortled because someone else I know noticed a sign above a local food stall that declared “Muslim food” and he said, “Food cannot be Muslim. Only people can be Muslim.”

That person was someone I befriended almost 20 years ago in the US. I was hosting him on a visit that naturally included a local lunch. The error of the sign was clear to him.

People who grow up here might not even have noticed the mistake or the clumsy humour of “Muslim food”. That is why kids still think of dessert as Muslim.
 

 
This happens because we are too close to something to see the issue or problem. It takes an outsider or someone who seems unfamiliar with the context to actually point out the error.

Being the stranger, and not being too comfortable with what is around you, can be a strength instead of a weakness. Such fresh eyes are borne of a learner mindset.

One issue that came up in this Twitter exchange was the difference in teachers being lesson planners and learning designers.

This is my perspective: The two are not separate or dichotomous. They are related and stem from overlapping behaviours. For example, both require deep pedagogical-content knowledge and empathy for learners.

However, there are nuanced differences between the two. I offer just three mindset factors that distinguish designers of learning from conventional instructors.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Messiness
I have long put forward that teaching is neat while learning is messy. A good educator recognises that learners do not have the same content structure and experiences as she does.

Someone with structure and experience has already been through one or more journeys. They can look back and try to guide others through. However, that guiding is not the same as the learning journey.

A learning journey is messy because it is full of trial and error.

Meddling and tinkering
Whereas teaching is structured and logical with the benefit of hindsight, learning is exploring the unknown. The best way to move forward is to take cognitive risks by trying.

Some might call this process tinkering. We are programmed to do this from the moment we are born. Soon after, adults try to reduce such risks — and such a natural way of learning — in the name of efficiency or safety.

When these adults are teachers, they deliver in chunks. This is not wrong, but it is also not congruent with how newbies learn. If teachers are to be designers of learning, they need to learn how to be the meddler-in-the-middle.

Being a lead learner
One key strategy to be a meddler-in-the-middle to the learn constantly. This way you know what it feels like to be uncertain, to struggle, and to empathise with learners.

Some call this being a lead learner. This is an apt moniker because the designer and facilitator of learning is just slightly ahead and around the learners. She is there relating to the struggle and struggling along with them.

This does not mean that a lead learner is uncertain or poorly skilled. Quite the opposite. A lead learner models thinking skills and problem-solving. A lead learner thinks out loud. A lead learner teaches reflexively and reflectively.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see. — Alexandra K. Trenfor

The takeaway from my descriptions should not be that these are prescriptions. I have just described mindset change. This is something that is shaped from teacher preparation to professional development and from policy making to systemic change management.

I like watching videos where experts either explain difficult concepts to learners of different ages or just to kids. The video below is one of the latter.


Video source

Explaining to an adult how to create bioluminescent plants from firefly DNA is challenging, much less kids. The two content experts from MIT were not quite comfortable teaching kids and their attempts illuminate some concepts about how students learn and what an effective teacher looks like.

When one content expert tried simplifying the concept of transferring bioluminescence, she ran into some trouble.

Expert: “…we just ask them to give us some chemicals”.
One child: “Do you tell them?”

Expert: “We just borrow the light from the fireflies…”
Another child: “Do you mean like real borrow or do you just keep it?”

The expert was visibly stunned by the kids’ questions and their teacher intervened with timely and appropriate answers.

An effective teacher is not just knowledgeable in content, she should also be a child and learning expert. As information mushrooms and knowledge needs to be constantly negotiated and updated, being the latter type of expert is critical.

The other expert got the kids to participate in a hands-on activity where they simulated bioluminescence by mixing chemicals in small vials. Instead of hearing about bioluminescence, they tried and saw for themselves.

This is not about appealing to different “learning styles” — which is a myth anyway — but to teach and reinforce with multiple methods and modes. That said, kids generally learn best by what stems from natural curiosity, i.e., experiencing and asking.

The teacher as a child and learning expert asked a critical question at the end of the experiment: “What do you think this could help solve?” She did not provide answers to her learners, but got them to generate answers that required them to think actively about what they just experienced.

This opinion piece, Not a good idea to start school later, is not about the good of the students. Instead, it is about their parents, the employers of the parents, the transport companies.

Now these other stakeholders also have a say. The problem is that their say is dominant and overwhelms what is important. That is why there is no change. The question of why we do not start school later is perennial and so are the standard answers.

The problem is not just that we keep revisiting this issue and not change anything. It is that we normalise the cycle, and in doing so, lose sight of what is important (the learner) and instead dwell on what is urgent (everything else).

What is important is seldom urgent. And what is urgent is seldom important. -- Dwight D. Eisenhower.

I love watching the YouTube videos from Great Big Story. That channel finds amazing and inspiring stories from all over the globe and distills them into just a few minutes.

This video is a collection of four stories. The first two personify lifelong learning in ways that no academic, policymaker, or school leader can describe.


Video source

The first story is of an 80-year-old woman who started weightlifting at age 70. The second is about a 69-year-old Nepalese man who is in the equivalent of tenth grade high school.

No words I might write do them justice. Watch and be inspired!

LEGO: Chill-axing at home.

Building with LEGO can be both creatively constrictive and constructive.

If you limit yourself to the manual, you follow the prescribed recipe to recreate exactly what is on the box and what everyone else has. If you do not, you might create a mess or something truly your own or both.

Many kids start with free form building, and when they get older, end up following the manual to get identical copies. The parallel to schooling could not be more obvious.

My son has just about grown out of LEGO. He still tinkers with it, but not as religiously as he used to. We recently put piles of dusty bricks away in storage and not a tear was shed.

Yesterday I asked my son if he could help me with some adult LEGO. We had purchased two IKEA storage units and I wanted to cut down the assembly time.

Our near simultaneous build reminded me of something I might now call IKEA pedagogy.

IKEA assembly iconography.

I am not referring to the iconographic or visuals-only instructions in IKEA manuals. These are very much like LEGO manuals. There is little room for error and there is no latitude for free-building unless you are doing an IKEA hack.

No, I am referring to the pedagogy of a lead learner.

As I was assembling something new, I remained just one step ahead of my son. This meant that if I made a mistake, I had the option of warning him or letting him make the same mistake.

While I tried to remain ahead by virtue of my greater experience and strength, there was also a chance that my son could have overtaken me.

The pedagogy of being a lead learner is one of teaching while learning yourself, but the learning always comes first. Both lead learner and students learn by trying, making mistakes, getting immediate feedback, and remediating.

The mindset of a lead learner is one of humility. One or more learners might be better or faster at some things. A lead learner needs to balance free exploration and providing close guidance.

Being a lead learner is harder than being a conventional teacher because the learner and learning come first, not the curriculum and tests. However, with enough practice and building of trust, students learn to think and do for themselves. There is no LEGO or IKEA manual for this, but the results are greatly satisfying.

We assembled two sturdy storage units in the same amount of time it would have taken to make just one. My son gained some confidence and contributed to a household effort. I also have the confidence that I can rely on him in the next build. Maybe he should be the lead learner in future.

Here is a lesson on video-based learning as applied outside the schooling bubble.

Watch this video of a 12-year-old girl who taught herself dubstep dancing by watching YouTube videos.


Video source

Administrators, instructional designers, and teachers might be seduced by the sentiment that the girl expressed: “It benefits you by rewinding, pausing… you can watch it over and over again, but in a classroom you can’t do that.” This is also what a vendor might say.

The self-taught dancer went on to say that the Internet was her generation’s way of learning things.

I do not deny those two points, but if we focus only on the technical affordances of YouTube videos and what seems to be a generational difference, we focus on the wrong things.

A video simply being on YouTube does not drive the learning. It is the learner that does this. In the words of the girl in the video:

If you’re on the Internet, you can really learn and teach yourself… You can do anything if you really have a passion for it.

What YouTube has done is made self-directed and truly independent learning possible. What the learner must do is desire to learn, search, watch, curate, practice, critique, and create. All are desirable outcomes, are they not?


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