August 12th, 2015

How Do You Learn?

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How do you learn? How do you teach?

We are definitely way more interested in learning than we used to be. In the early years of my teaching and faculty development work, it was all about teaching: improve it and students will automatically learn more. Now the focus is on how students learn and the implications that has for how we teach.

Lately I’ve been wondering about the learning practices of those of us who teach—what we know about ourselves as learners and how that knowledge influences the decisions we make about teaching. I’ve been trying to recall what I’ve thought about myself as a learner when I was in college. I think I self-identified as a student. I took courses and learned content. I liked some subjects and didn’t like others, which was sort of related to what I thought I could do. But the concept of learning as an entity was pretty much a big amorphous fuzz.

In a workshop on using reflection to promote professional growth, I asked participants to spend some time thinking and writing about what they knew about themselves as learners. Teaching Professor Blog When we moved to a whole-group discussion, people talked about learning in general, not about themselves as learners. I didn’t have much luck getting the group to make it personal. Did it feel too risky? That didn’t seem right. This group had been working together for almost eight weeks. Was the question unclear? Or was it simply that these college teachers hadn’t thought much about themselves as learners and didn’t have any good answers at the ready?

Many of us have done the learning styles bit. We’ve got some broad parameters. I learn from text. If findings are explained in the text, I get it. Make me get the conclusions from a table and I struggle. I like questions that generate an array of answers without definitive right ones. I’m better with details and don’t always see how they can be assembled into a big picture. I’m betting you can come up with your own descriptions for how you like to learn, but these are all general characteristics, starting points. The wave of neuroscience research is making it clear that learners are unique, that understanding and sense-making is very much an individual process. Our thinking about how we do it needs to be more precise and specific.

I also tried to get my workshop group to talk about the relationship between what we study and how we learn. We find our way to these disciplines where knowledge is configured, organized, shaped, and structured in particular ways. Do we feel at home there because those ways of dealing with content fit with how we manage material—or is it the other way around? We get into these disciplinary domains and they start shaping how we think, question, analyze, discover, and learn. Or, maybe it’s some synergistic relationship that we have yet to figure out.

It’s interesting to try to learn something new and unlike what you know well. That takes most of us outside our comfort zones, and pretty quickly we start looking and acting a lot like our students. I’m trying to learn how to kayak this summer. A phys ed teacher who lives next door has been helping me. I hear myself telling her that I’m a motor-skills moron and may be too old to learn. My kayak mostly moves in clumsy circles. She glides around smoothly and with such precision that I’m embarrassed to be in her presence. I apologize for my stupid questions. The learning strategies I rely on to read, write, think, and make presentations simply don’t work with this learning task.

I’m convinced that how we learn influences the decisions we make about how to teach. It starts with the commitment to teach the kind of course we’d like to take. Many of us talk a lot when we teach because we learn well by listening. We assign lots of reading because that’s how we master new information. But those are the easy, obvious connections. I suspect there are others that are more subtle and complex. How we learn and its effects on how we teach are intriguing. It’s important because it affects how students learn. I’m wondering if the kind of teaching that helps students learn begins with a clear understanding of how learning works for us.

I welcome your thoughts. Please share them in the comment box.