By Mark Heintz
My wife calls me an idea man. I have ideas for everything and because of that, I use Pinterest. Yes, I use Pinterest. I use it to document and store a lot of those ideas, and I love it. To add fuel to the fire, I perseverate a lot and will repeat the same idea over and over again, but with just a slight variation to make it worth repeating. From time to time (ok, every day), I talk to my wife about my ideas for education. I am very lucky to have her. In addition to her, I'm fortunate to have a great support group in my professional community who are willing to listen and discuss my ideas. But, as I enter my thirteenth year of teaching, I realize that I've had a lot of ideas I thought would be silver bullet fixes to problems in the classroom. I thought that if I found the perfect curriculum or used the "best" strategy, then the students would learn at unprecedented levels. Early in my career, I dove deeply into standardized testing and data. Then, I was an early adopter of the iPad and personalized technology. Afterward, I flipped my classroom. If there has been a buzz-worthy idea, I have implemented it. As I reflect back on those ideas, I wonder--what the hell do I actually stand for?
I know I am not the only one with a similar story. Many teachers leave the profession. Many more burn out. It’s not for a lack of caring; often it's because we care so much. But, I think the problem is that we don’t have a common mission or understanding of our core beliefs. Because of a lack of a clear mission, we continue to make large sweeping changes almost every year.
What is the purpose of school?
Seriously, what do I stand for? If I don’t have a clear purpose, then the buzz-worthy topics will continue to pressure me to adopt the latest trends prompting me to redesign the courses I teach every few years. As I am sifting through my last decade of ideas, I come to one core belief that is above everything else: learning. I value learning.
As I reflect on all of the fads I've adopted and reworking of courses I've done, I wonder what my beliefs about meaningful learning are. If I had a core understanding of my own definition of what meaningful learning is, would I have been so quick to make changes?
Now, the only ideas I am interested in are ones about learning. Because of that singular belief, I conclude that schools exist to create conditions that maximize learning. But what do I mean by learning?
What do you mean by meaning learning?
I have struggled with my own definitions of learning. It's not easy to come up with a definition of it that really holds any value. It's easier at the moment to adopt a new fad rather than define learning and develop a mission statement. But for me, I'm at a point in my journey where I need to define it. Here is what I have come up with. Meaningful learning is being engaged in the process of developing new understandings or skill sets that are useful in our lives.
While people can discuss at length what should be learned, there needs to be common understandings in a school community about what learning is for those conversations to be meaningful. I firmly believe that a lot of energy can be saved in schools if people sat down and talked about their beliefs on learning.
What do I mean by engaged?
Engagement is one of the major buzzwords in education and is used in so many different contexts. Because of that, it's almost lost all meaning. I don’t want to create a superficial definition that crumbles the second I doubt what I am doing.
Most of what we "learn" is lost. As I think about everything I have "learned," or more appropriately, been exposed to in my lifetime, almost all of it is consumed and forgotten quickly. How many times have I looked something up and forgotten it in a matter of hours? The same goes for the students in the classroom. I tell them things and most of the time within a day they have forgotten it! This is because true learning that is meaningful and lasting does not take place unless there is a personal agency in the new understanding that is purposeful beyond the moment. This means that people must have a desire to learn the topic or skill.
Therefore, engagement means the desire to learn. True engagement in learning boils down to desire. If a person has a desire to learn the topic or skill, they are engaged.
What do I mean by useful in our lives?
The dreaded question: "Why are we learning this?" I'm big on explaining to my students why I'm having them learn something. I explain the role it has in the subject and the overall payoff. Even when I am really good at setting the stage, I think most students "learn" for assessments, grades, projects, or the vague possibility of a future payoff because there isn't much personal agency in all of the things I am teaching them. I dictated the exact topic they will learn. Over the past few years, I noticed that when I ask greater opened ended provocations, the students are more prone to exploring the topic in meaningful ways. But when the learning is disproportionately for a grade, something is lost. The learning has to go somewhere other than for school purposes for it to be meaningful and is most powerful when it is going someplace useful for their lives.
There is a natural curiosity to engaged learning that drives the use. If the provocation is thought-provoking or there is a real-world problem to solve, the use is in the forefront. The use then is to gain new insights into the world or to create a solution. Either way, the engaged learner has an intrinsic purpose.
What if we don't have a common belief about learning?
Simply put, trust is lost. Trust is lost between any combination of administration, teachers, guardians, students, and businesses. When the stakeholders in a learning community don't share common beliefs about learning, we lose respect for each other. For example, while we wonder why students aren’t learning a topic the students are wondering why they are learning the topic. We will continue to focus on niche items in learning or topics that distract us from our focus on meaningful learning. Some of these topics are deadlines, discipline, social-emotional issues, implementing technology, arguing over curriculum, assessments, bell ringers, projects, and rigor. But the focus should be on learning.
Call to Action
I challenge you to write down your beliefs about learning. Do so without concern for assessment, curriculum, discipline, or your own educational experience. Just write down what you believe about meaningful learning. I look forward to reading, hearing, and discussing your thoughts!
A huge thank you to Kim Miklusak for editing this post and her constant willingness to debate, to my district for creating conditions for me to have great discussions with my colleagues and community, and to the Modern Learners community for pushing me to find my voice.