As teachers, we can become frustrated with students who seem interested only in the grades they receive rather than valuing the learning they gain. We can also struggle to motivate students who seem to not buy into traditional motivators to complete their work and meet expectations. Further, we can find ourselves feeling disappointed in students who appear to have great potential but only do the bare minimum of what is required.
What if we could create a learning environment in which students placed a high value on learning—for the sake of learning? What if students persisted in learning efforts even when they make mistakes and struggle? And what if students wanted to learn more about a concept or skill than we have planned to teach? Sound impossible? Here are six strategies we can employ to move students from a passive culture of compliance to a powerful culture of learning.
First, make learning the focus. To do this, we can value ideas, notice progress, and encourage insight over the assignment of grades. We need to position grades as a reflection of learning—not the reason for it. For example, we might delay the assignment of grades for as long as possible, and we need to be clear about the learning-based criteria that lead to grades. We can frequently and meaningfully remind students that learning is what matters most. In fact, while what one knows may have been their most valuable asset in the past, the skill and drive to learn are what will be valued most in the future.
Second, honor mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Specifically, mistakes in learning help us to understand what is yet to be learned. Mistakes happen most often at the leading edge of learning. When we create classroom and learning conditions where mistakes are mined for learning and are used to guide inquiry, embarrassment retreats and learning grows. In other areas of life, students grasp that mistakes are natural and valuable to learning (think video games, sports, and learning to play a musical instrument). We can draw on the role—and value—mistakes play in other areas of life to reassure students and encourage them to leverage and learn from mistakes in academic learning, too.
Third, value struggle. It’s a fact that when learning is not accompanied by a challenge, it’s likely that very little learning is actually happening. Struggle is most likely to be present when new learning is growing and beginning to take hold. We might discuss with students that amid struggle is where important learning happens. Struggle is not a sign of weakness. New ideas, breakthrough inventions, and important discoveries almost always involve struggle. The fact that we may struggle to learn a skill or concept is less important than what we do with said struggle. That feeling of being stuck in struggle is often a sign that learning is just ahead.
Fourth, celebrate curiosity. Curiosity is a key driving force of learning. Some of life’s most interesting and rewarding experiences start with being curious. Curiosity is naturally occurring in humans. It can give students a purpose for learning, and it can be the key to unlocking new experiences, generating new ideas, and gaining new insights. However, formal classroom learning too often values compliance over curiosity. Students’ curiosity can feel like a distraction from our structured plans. Yet, it can be a powerful tool for learning. We can stimulate curiosity by asking open-ended questions without a clear or single answer. We can pay attention to the interests of students and build on the curiosity behind them. We might present compelling challenges and dilemmas and then allow students to investigate, engage, and propose solutions before introducing formal instruction.
Fifth, encourage learning from multiple sources. While our instruction is typically the “backbone” of what stimulates learning, we can nudge, delight in, and respect student learning gained from other sources and through other experiences. Students have a myriad of sources from which they can learn. The more they recognize and draw on other sources, the more independent their learning becomes. As examples, conversations with classmates can lead to new insights, observations from parents can add to understanding, and technology and print media can give access to virtually unlimited information. The key is for us to create reasons for students to seek information, insights, and knowledge beyond our instruction. We might even ask students at the end of a teaching and learning cycle, “What did you learn that I did not teach you?”
Sixth, honor learning variance. Rather than beginning by focusing on whether students have arrived at a correct answer, we can start by discussing the paths they look to reach their conclusions. Often, we can learn more by understanding what led students to an answer than by the answer itself. Further, by engaging students in the examination of their learning process, we can then better understand and encourage students to respect and hone different ways of learning that work for them. Rarely in life is there only one way to do something. In fact, when we rely on only one way, there is often a better way waiting to be discovered. Providing encouragement for and respecting different ways of learning can honor students who learn differently and provide important examples and alternatives for students who may learn in more traditional ways.
We must remember that our students may have many years of experience in formal learning environments that have emphasized grades over learning. They may have come to see mistakes and struggles as experiences to be avoided. Curiosity may be something they have reserved for life outside of school; learning in a variety of ways and from varied sources may have even been actively discouraged. Consequently, nurturing a powerful culture of learning may take some time, and we must remember that not everything we try will work immediately. Yet, the opportunity to transform the learning experiences of our students—and prepare them to live in a world where learning is the key to success—is too great to be ignored.