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Improving Learning Requires Unlearning

Improving Learning Requires Unlearning

What we think we know has a powerful impact on what we believe, how we behave, and what we see. Our beliefs and perceptions often grow out of early experiences in formal education, what our parents and other adults told us, and the culture in which we grew up.

 

Yet, what we believe and how we see the world are not always accurate. In fact, some of the things we believe and many of our perceptions may be in error. Still, we cling to them because they are familiar. In many cases, they have worked well enough for us in the past to leave their value unquestioned.

 

At the same time, just because some practices and processes have been in place for a long time does not make them perfect, or even highly successful. But they can be difficult to change because they are what we learned they are supposed to be.

 

Meanwhile, we are faced with changing and growing expectations for outcomes, especially in education. In response, we can be tempted to double down on what we know and how schools have traditionally operated. In the short term this strategy may seem marginally successful as we tinker and adjust existing practices. Unfortunately, this approach typically holds little promise for significant, widespread, sustainable improvement. If it did, the efforts of the past 30 years to improve schools would have paid off by now.

 

Maybe it’s time to try “unlearning” some old beliefs and assumptions and try “relearning” by suspending traditions and exploring new ways of thinking. At first, this suggestion may seem naïve. Yet, there are some obvious places we could start that hold significant potential to generate different, more compelling outcomes than we are likely to experience by relying on how things have traditionally been done. Here are five places where unlearning and relearning hold promise:

  • What if we let go of the idea that schools should be driven by teaching and replace it with the idea that schools should be driven by learning? If we did, the questions of what students are ready to learn and how to support their learning would replace standardized lesson plans, remediation, and students who fall behind.
  • What if we let go of the idea that students who misbehave should be punished and concentrate on helping these students develop better conflict resolution skills, more alternatives to deal with frustration and anger, and build stronger relationships with peers and adults? We know that punishment accomplishes little beyond some immediate compliance. If we focus on developing the capacity of students to be successful in a social environment, we are likely to see changes that are positive and lasting.
  • What if we grouped students by readiness to learn rather than age? The average American classroom includes students whose readiness to learn spans 3 ½ years. Yet, we ask teachers to meet the needs of all of these students with a curriculum developed on the assumption that all students are ready to learn at grade level.
  • What if we focused on the quality of student learning, not just its speed? We typically give special status and attention to students who learn quickly, even though much of the progress we see may be the result of strong short-term memory skills, or an ability to “read” the expectations of teachers. Meanwhile, some of the deepest, longest lasting learning comes as the result of struggle and time-consuming focus.
  • What if we assigned grades and developed “progress reports” based on what students learn, not just what they know? The traditional grading system gives significant advantage to students who enter classes already knowing much of what will be taught. Meanwhile, students with little background knowledge may learn a great deal, but still fall short of meeting every expectation in the time allocated for the class. The danger is that students who receive the highest grades may be students who learned the least from the experience.

 

To be clear, making the shifts in processes and practices suggested by this list is not a small challenge. They counter many of the assumptions and beliefs most adults hold about how school should operate. They also ask us to unlearn much of what we have been taught and has been expected of us throughout our careers. Relearning means committing to suspend what has been learned in favor of asking ourselves and each other what could and should be the experiences we offer to our students.

Thought for the Week

The success and happiness of our students will be enhanced through understanding, engagement, and respect rather than polarization and divisiveness.

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