Learning Comes from Doing
LEARNING COMES FROM DOING
Early on in my teaching career at St. George’s School of Montreal, I was asked to teach astronomy to Grade 7 students, including a unit describing the movement of planets. Having undertaken this task, I realized that many of my students were struggling to develop a deeper understanding of the inter-relation of the movement of planets with the sun and the moon, and how each rotation and revolution affected our human condition on earth.
Now let’s fast forward to the present. As we continue to develop The BLVD., our Distance Learning program, I have been asking our teachers to share examples of student work that illustrates one or more of our unique Founding Principles, and this week, we focus on “Learning Comes from Doing”.
THE EARTH, MOON AND SUN
Needless to say, I have been impressed by the many examples offered to date, including this short video from a pair of St. George’s junior elementary students. Their presentation beautifully exemplifies the full meaning of the principle “Learning Comes from Doing”. In the video, the children are seen to represent the moon and the earth as they revolve around the sun, all while maintaining their own rotational movement throughout—demonstrating a clear understanding of the dual movement and the relationship between this star and planet.
How could these kids not now be completely prepared to integrate the complex notions of seasonal changes and the transition between day and night as fundamental aspects of a complex reality that typically becomes even more evident much later on in their studies?
Not only does the principle “Learning Comes from Doing” describe their experience, it also confirms a deeper love for lifelong learning. If you were to have a brief chat with our young astronomers, you would realize that their understanding is not the stuff of rote memory but the result of authentic and embodied learning.
A DEEPER LEARNING
During our present and ever-evolving The BLVD. Distance Learning program, we continue to ask ourselves: What is learning in this context and what are the conditions required to provide students with optimal opportunity to grow? What is rigorous teaching and which teaching interventions are more conducive to surface learning or to deeper learning? (Note: Surface learning isn’t bad, it just isn’t enough on its own. Knowledge of facts and mastery of discrete skills is essential for deeper understanding.)
JOHN DEWEY REVISITED
Those were also the questions that animated the conversations of a certain group of visionary educators and our founding parents some 90 years ago, including the families Birks, Mitchell, Beaton, Stredder, Goforths, and Hannaford (Yes! Hal Hannaford’s grandfather). Their discussions and research led them to the work of John Dewey, the founding father of progressive education in America and a firm believer that learning comes from doing. In his words:
Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active constructive process... Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and if the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results... We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.
From that moment on, our school developed a distinctive curriculum and a set of pedagogical principles that would ensure that observation, experimentation, discussion and scaffolded reflection be embedded in all our interventions so that knowledge acquisition and skill development would always be rooted in complex cognitive engagement.
THE BRAIN AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
When students explore and complete experiential tasks, they connect new observations and new discoveries with pre-existing cognitive schema and, in the process, connect ideas with a deeper level of understanding. For most people, remembering rote information is associated with traditional school learning. This knowledge acquisition process is fairly efficient—in the short term.
Perhaps this is why for so many years, in so many schools, rote learning was the main strategy of instruction. However, it has been proven over and over that the brain discards most of the rote facts acquired, especially over time, if they are not connected to important concepts. Furthermore, the brain forgets or is unable to retrieve facts learned by rote in a situation that requires critical thinking, especially if the “facts” haven’t been woven into the fabric of more complex principles.
Learning, especially deep learning, is a messy process. It is a complex reality that requires grappling with the unknown while making mistakes or false assumptions. It involves simultaneously correcting mistakes and creatively associating new ideas in order to find true solutions to engaging problems or realities.
WE WERE ALWAYS ENGAGED
It has been said by first time visitors to St. George’s that they are struck by the impressive level of activity of our students. On the occasion of the 50thAnniversary of the founding of the school, a booklet of alumni recollections was produced. To paraphrase one of the contributors, a doctor who was practicing medicine in Texas at that time, “I really don’t have a strong recollection of the actual lessons being taught. But I do remember that we were always actively and purposefully engaged, focusing on various aspects of collaborative projects and discussions. For this I have very strong and fond memories and I believe that my early education continues to serve me well in life.”
There is no doubt that our students are doers and our teachers actively engage them into action. These actions can be structured activities or unstructured play; it can be role play or hands-on experiments; and it can also be the exploration of various genres of writing or creative engagement. Which ever kind of action, the essential component of rigorous reflection is always intrinsic in the learning and further inspires our students to discover the gift of self-directed learning.
FRICTION AND VELOCITY?
I started my reflection on “Learning Comes from Doing” with the example of our two young elementary students revolving around the sun. I would like to end it with one more interesting example of deeper learning that comes from a student experimenting, in this case, with the concept of friction. Students had been asked to demonstrate their understanding of friction as it relates to an object’s velocity. Olympia, a Grade 2 student, constructed an elaborate marble track to analyze the speed of a marble rolling down various surfaces, each offering a different level of friction. Through her creative presentation and thorough reflection, it is clear that Olympia acquired a solid foundation of the concept of friction.
A FINAL THOUGHT
So, let me leave you with these questions: Having read this blog, what is your understanding of the science explaining the revolution of the moon and planets around the sun? How solid is your physics foundation around the notion of friction?
If you are still unsure, just ask our junior elementary school students—our resident astronomers and physicists. They will be able to best explain it to you.