Convincing students to give their best effort, persist in the face of learning challenges, and learn from mistakes and setbacks is a constant struggle for educators. Yet, we know that these three factors are crucial to students becoming skilled, successful learners. High levels of learning require commitment, focus, and flexibility. Unless we can convince students to commit to the process of learning, they are likely to miss the opportunity to develop their full capacity as learners.
Unfortunately, the school-based learning experience of too many students works against the goals of consistently doing their best work, persisting despite struggles, and valuing mistakes as information to help learning. The traditional design of instruction positions students primarily to be consumers of information provided by teachers and other authoritative sources. The information they are presented has been sifted, sorted, organized, and sequenced by others, based on assumptions about how students will receive and absorb what is presented. New skills are introduced as tasks to be accomplished, rather than as tools to help students achieve goals and perform tasks important to them. Further, a limited amount of time is allocated for students to absorb information and learn the skills expected of them. Consequently, opportunities for reflection, flexibility for learning pace, and support to examine and learn from errors also are limited.
Of course, students do not always know what they do not know, nor do they always appreciate the full value and benefits of what they are asked to learn. Some portion of formal learning, by necessity, positions learners as consumers of what is already known and judged to be valuable. Yet, when learning is not attached to significant purpose, motivation can wane, engagement can diminish, and learning can be superficial. Helping students to see the purpose of what they are asked to learn can be an important step in building learning commitment and persistence. Often, a discussion with students about the purpose and value of what they are learning and examples of how it can be useful are enough to carry learning forward.
Certainly, we can enhance the connection between purpose and learning by giving students opportunities to apply new skills and leverage new information to analyze and interpret events, predict outcomes, and understand interactions. While reinforcing the purpose of learning, application opportunities also build confidence and deepen understanding. When we design application activities that connect to the lives of students, these learning experiences can be even more powerful and engaging.
However, if we truly want to tap the learning energies of students, build their persistence, and instill the value of learning from errors and setbacks, we need to give students opportunities to use their new learning to contribute and create. When students can use what they are learning to teach others, solve a legitimate problem, or create something of interest and importance to them, learning can be transformed. Students go from being consumers of what others have learned to producers and creators of new value.
When students see themselves as adding value and creating, learning takes on important characteristics. Giving one’s best effort is a natural act. Persistence is an important component of solving a problem or accomplishing a goal. Errors are valued as learning guideposts and definers of what does not work. Ownership of learning becomes a natural part of the process. Quality is not an external expectation. It becomes an internal value.
Obviously, all three learning conditions play a role in the learning journey of students. They often need to begin as consumers of purposeful knowledge and adopters of defined skills. They need opportunities to practice and apply what they learn. However, when we view students and students view themselves as contributors and creators as they learn and use what they learn, learning motivation and commitment moves to new levels and learning becomes an integral part of life.