Put Me in, Coach!
Get Them in the Game

On January 6 What’s the Story? convened its second in a series of Creative Conversations, a monthly, hour-long exploration of the learning laws described in Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to update our educational OS. On the docket was Learning Learning Law #2: We learn best by performing badly at something we want to get good at.

After a five-minute lesson re: Learning Law #2 (and some private think time), we moved into breakout groups, where participants discussed and documented resources (organized here for you) that can help educators transition to brain-based practices aligned with this learning law.

Where We Go Wrong
As soon as teachers proceed with a curriculum that is disconnected from their learners’ most pressing desires and questions, they’ve lost the vital force that propels long-lasting learning--intrinsic motivation. Complaining about disengaged learners while teaching a curriculum divorced from students’ curiosity is like complaining that a car doesn’t run well, after filling it with sand and diesel.

The road to deep learning is paved with mistake making, something humans avoid, unless the road is heading to a longed-for place. Why would anyone undergo the vexing experience of repeatedly performing badly at something that's headed nowhere?

This is true for all of us. This is why most professional development doesn’t have much impact on how educators teach. Educators’ brains are the same as their students' brains. Requiring educators to sit and listen to experts explain ideas disconnected from their pressing needs yields the same results. Compliance at best, rebellion at worst.

Where We Get it Right
Humans are the universe’s best known learner, a capacity that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, long before schools came into the picture. Our specialty? Socializing to solve pressing problems so we might lead more satisfying lives.

So schools are most successful, not surprisingly, when they create opportunities for students to work together to engage in experiences that help them lead more satisfying lives. The performance arts and athletics elicit the kind of intrinsic motivation that inspires students to practice deeply, constantly making and correcting mistakes in order to perform at their personal best. These learners long to hear the roar of the crowd and bathe in the glow of a well-earned standing O. Unforgettable and transformative experiences.

This is a far cry from the standard fare doled out in most discipline-bound classrooms, where students are asked to persist at making ongoing mistakes without a desirable destination in mind. We do dangle the vague prospect of a “bright future”, but for most adolescent minds, this just can't compete with today's pressing challenges and compelling opportunities. And students who commit to the grade game run the risk of investing some of their brains' best years on short-term learning to maintain an impressive GPA. 

But What to Do?
To tap the evolutionary inheritance that resides in all of our students--the wild learner within--begin applying the design advice of Antoine de Saint Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign tasks, but rather teach them to long for the sea.”

Learning that’s designed to elicit this kind of longing includes these three dimensions:

1. The purpose is deeply meaningful and elicits strong emotions from students.
2. Students are learning and creating with a specific and motivating audience in mind.
3. While the purpose is compelling and clear, the path often is not; students problem solve together, drawing on each others’ capacities.

All teachers can make progress with this kind of learning design, but even if students only had one experience like this each school year, it would have a profound impact. Moreover, uplifted by this kind of deep meaning making, they’d be more apt to engage in their more conventional classes, especially if those classes are moving, even slowly, toward a model of learning that’s more compatible with why and how people learn.

Here’s a helpful exercise for educators looking to upgrade their course design. And for those wondering if the upgrade is worth the effort, take five minutes to read this reflection, written by a WTS student. Wild learning, indeed!

Operating System Upgrade Required
Designing learning experiences compatible with why and how people learn is not easy or simple, especially while working within our current school systems, which persist with an antiquated operating system that perpetuates an industrial-age understanding of learning and teaching.

If the ideas described in this blog resonate with you, consider these three resources for getting you and your students in this game.
  • Locate similarly-spirited and like-minded colleagues and make time to work and play with them. Our Creative Conversations series creates a space for this to happen. To join this free and substantive fun, register here for our March 3 session, which runs from 3:30 - 4:30.
  • Sign up for WTS’ newsletter, filled with practical and inspiring ideas for how to design learning that is compatible with why and how people learn.
  • Read this blogpost (Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to upgrade our educational OS) and be sure to explore the wide-range of tiered resources linked at the conclusion of the blog.