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The design of our schools assumes that learning occurs as a result of being taught. While it is true that receiving instruction is one way to learn, it is not the only, or always the best way to learn. Further, the design of our schools places teachers and instruction at the center, rather than learning. Consider: Who plans what will be learned? Who decides how learning is to be approached? Who decides when learning is to occur and how much time is available for learning? Who decides what content and learning activities will be presented? Little of what is important about learning remains to be decided by the learner. Consequently, too many students see school as designed for the benefit of adults; not for them and their learning.

At the same time, this school design means that the level of learning inevitably will vary. Further, instruction usually moves on even though not everyone has learned what was taught. While grades may be assigned to generally document what level of learning occurred, future instruction typically proceeds as though everyone learned what was previously taught.

There was a time when it was not crucial to our economy and society to have a citizenry that was universally well-educated and this approach to teaching and learning made sense. But the world has changed. Today, our future depends on a citizenry that possesses the capacity to function successfully in a complex, technological, rapidly changing world. An informed, skilled, and learning-capable citizenry and work force are becoming more important each day. The issues facing our society are growing in complexity and the workplace demands workers who can continue to learn and adjust in response to changing conditions, expectations, and functions.

The bottom line: We need a citizenry whose learning skills are strong and who value learning as a key to their future success. A growing number of economists and workplace experts are pointing to this phenomenon with growing urgency and alarm. In a recent PBS News Hour segment, James Bessen, an economist and the executive director of the Technology and Policy Research Initiative at Boston University School of Law noted the importance of focusing the preparation of workers on “how to learn rather than any specific skill because the technology related skills are changing all the time” (Frazee, 2018). In their recent book, The Expertise Economy, Authors Kelly Palmer and David Blake (2018) make the argument that credentials are no longer what is most important. Employers are seeking skills, expertise, and the ability to learn.

While individually we may not be able to change the current design of schools, there are steps we can take to increase the focus on learning and development of the learning skills of our students. Here are five actions we can take immediately:

  1. Support students to set goals for their learning and participate in identifying steps they will take and activities in which they will engage to reach their goals. Obviously, the goals need to be aligned with identified standards and competencies, but as much as practical, the goals need to reflect the commitment of students rather than goals we assign to them.
  2. Monitor the level of challenge students are presented with to ensure that success is possible with appropriate focus and effort and not so easy that new learning is not generated. Known as the Zone of Proximal Development, the best learning outcomes tend to be generated within this range.
  3. Coach students to reflect as they struggle, make progress, encounter setbacks, and grow. The practice of reflection is among the most powerful learning strategies available. As students become increasingly skilled at reflection, they become increasingly independent learners.
  4. Focus feedback and recognition on the effectiveness of learning strategies and aligned learning effort. Help students to understand that the use of effective strategies and smart effort positions them to learn concepts and skills that are increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, they will be building confidence in their learning and tolerance for unsuccessful initial attempts to learn.
  5. Whenever possible, frame new learning in the context of the value and purpose it represents. Purpose is a powerful driver of learning. The more we can connect learning and the value it can offer, the more students will come to value learning and the more likely they are to choose to continue to learn, even when we are not present.

Palmer, K., & Blake, D. (2018). The expertise economy: How the smartest companies use learning to engage, compete, and succeed. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Frazee, G. (2018, November 16). Manufacturers say their worker shortage is getting worse. Here’s why. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/making-sense/manufacturers-say-their-job-shortage-is-getting-worse-heres-why

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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