September 3, 2014
Those Magical and Mysterious Learning Moments
I’ve been reading some old issues of The Teaching Professor newsletter and ran across a lovely piece by William Reinsmith on learning moments. He’s writing about those times when students get it, when something turns the lights on and they glow with understanding. It may be a moment when they finally figure out how to do so something—a long elusive skill or a solution to a problem. Other times it’s a moment of insight, often a possibility or explanation that had never crossed their minds, or a set of ideas that come together and create a new perspective on a familiar issue.
This happens individually, as a learner studies and works alone, but it also happens during class to one or more students. And it’s those moments of a group epiphany that are of interest to Reinsmith. “A learning moment erupts in its own time and place, on its own terms.” “When the moment arrives a space opens up and the class is stilled—an insight is shared, a quiet wonder descends.” It’s those “ah-ha” moments when there’s a collective, “So that’s how it works” or why it works.
It is interesting that the final step in learning regularly occurs in these very short time frames. Certainly there is cumulative learning, a growing understanding of something but even then, along the way, things come together quickly, in a moment. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where one key piece fits and the whole corner is finished, or an insight is the dot that connects a whole series of lines.
Reinsmith notes that learning moments cannot be forced. “… not even the most outstanding teacher can summon a learning moment. The most we can do is fashion a context for them.” He thinks we do that by avoiding rigidity and fostering “a sense of ease; where a certain lightness, even playfulness reigns.” Reinsmith recommends that we “… stay open, keeping our minds nimble. Most of all we must learn to abandon what we thought was important and surrender to [learning moments] serendipitous nature. Put succinctly, teachers … must learn to live on the balls of their feet, expecting the unexpected.”
Reinsmith’s descriptions are lovely, metaphoric, and abstract. I think moments of learning happen for individual students and collections of them in most every class, but not always with teacher awareness. The teacher is doing his thing and the students are doing theirs without recognizing they are both on the same bridge. The students are trying to cross to new understanding, and the teacher is trying to help them get there. I know, more metaphors, yet there are some things about teaching and learning that many of us have experienced, but can’t find the words to explain. I know that what Reinsmith writes about learning moments is real. I’ve seen them, felt them, and wished I could make them happen more often.
When one of these moments happens among a group of learners, it’s powerful. Like a bolt of lightning, it strikes with a flash, booms around for a few second, and then is gone, but not before leaving its mark. We have a tree on our property that was hit by lightning. We were there when it happened and saw pieces of bark flying through the air. The tree lives on, but it has been permanently changed.
The pragmatic question is how to make the most of these learning moments. By pausing and honoring them with silence? By celebrating them? Should we ask students to talk about what they’ve just experienced? Reinsmith writes that teachers should “ride the wave,” seeing if the moment can be made to last longer so others may find their way to the new understanding.
A lot about teaching and learning is very nuts and bolts—pragmatic, practical, here’s-how you-do-it advice. Much of our pedagogical knowledge is empirical, evidence-based, and logically coherent. But neither of those explain those magical, mysterious moments that raise hair on necks and boost heart rates. So, as the new academic year settles in, head to class expecting a regular day, but having thought about how you’ll respond should a learning moment suddenly illuminate the room.
Reinsmith, W. (2003). Make the Most of the Learning Moment. The Teaching Professor, 17 (10), 1, 7.