March 19th, 2014

Four Lessons about Learning Discovered on a Chairlift

By:

Chemistry professor Steven M. Wright has written a one-page essay about his niece, Julia, learning how to downhill ski. She was ready for her first ride on the chairlift and Wright was helping her. He’s a professor so he covered the topic in a well-organized, easy-to-understand way. It was a short, five minute lecture that ended with a repeat of the main point, “keep your ski tips up when you get on the lift.”

So they get in the lift line and ready themselves for the chairlift to sweep them up the mountain. Whoosh! And within three feet of getting on the lift, Julia lost her skis. They spend the rest of the ride brainstorming solutions to being ski-less on the lift. Wright reports that Julia did learn her lesson. She hasn’t lost her skis on a chairlift since. And Professor Wright learned his lessons—four of them.

1. It’s all about the learning. “Successful teaching isn’t measured by what I have covered; it is measured by what students learn.” Wright gave a good lecture, one that would likely receive high ratings. But when measured by its effects on learning, it was a complete failure. If students can’t or don’t apply what they “learned,” have they really “learned,” or the more interesting question, have they really been “taught?” Teaching that promotes little or no learning does raise some interesting ethical questions. But there’s no question about the lesson confirmed by this experience. “Coverage does not always equal learning.”

2. Learning requires engagement and motivation. When did Julia learn that she needed to keep her ski tips up? When she lost her skis. At that point (not before), did what she was told become relevant and meaningful. In order for students to discover if they understand, they need to be able to act on what they’ve learned. They may know the formula but if they still can’t solve the problem, chances are good, they really don’t understand. The story illustrates the powerful learning potential inherent in failure and why it is so important for teachers to help students deal with failure constructively. When you can’t do something or are clearly doing it wrong, and it’s something you need or want to be able to do, there’s compelling motivation to figure it out.

3. Process and content go hand in hand. Julia needed to learn to keep her ski tips up—that’s the content lesson. But when she didn’t, she had another problem—what to do on the chairlift when you’re there without skis. When you don’t get the content, you also have a process problem—what can you do about what you don’t understand or did incorrectly? Do you need more information? Do you need to ask a question? Should you try again? Most process issues are resolved with critical thinking and problem solving.

This reminds us how important is it for teachers to not fix problems for students, but to equip them with skills so that they can fix the problems for themselves. Wright shares an interesting image that sums up his learning on this point. “I visualize a student walking across the stage to receive a diploma carrying two suitcases, one brimming with ideas about molecular structure [remember he’s a chemist] and the other teeming skills like critical analysis and problem solving.” We should be helping student fill both these suitcases in our courses.

4. Learning must be on target. The target is the goal—what the students should know and be able to do with what they’re learning. The test, in this case an authentic assessment, was whether Julia could keep her ski tips up and it was a test she failed. Students need frequent, ongoing assessments that test what they think they know. But Julia benefited in a way some of our students don’t. Right after she failed the test, she had the teacher sitting alongside helping her figure out what she should do next.

“With these four lessons, my classroom model falls naturally into place. It must be student-centered and cooperative. Students must be actively engaged in the inquiry of chemistry, seeking theories for relevant data and solutions to authentic problems.”

Reference: Wright, S. M., (2012). Lessons learned from Julia. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42 (1), 10.