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The Importance of Defining Learning

By Matt Piercy
The Importance of Defining Learning

The rapid pace of change this 21st century is undeniable. Computer processors are but one example, their speed said to double every two years. This doubling effect, known as Moore’s Law, plays out in a myriad of ways. There is ever more information and a heightened expectation that we stay abreast of it but a perception that there is less time in which to do it. Some say this century is as far away from the 20th as the 20th century is from the Dark Ages. With accelerated change, even the definition of learning has changed. What does “learning” really mean? It seems essential that we define it—if not as a society, or as an international school community, then at least at the institutional level. Only after clearly spelling out what we believe it means to learn can we begin to ensure that our students are fully engaged in the process. Or else! Stakes are rising, as neither climate change nor shifting political and economic models are going to wait. The global dropout rate continues to increase, as does the growing unpreparedness of university graduates attempting to enter the workforce. Meaningful and transferable learning screams out for our attention. While we aspire to reexamine and define what learning really means, we look to educational philosophy and practice in the hope that they are grounded in an unremitting necessity to inquire but also in the ability to actually produce solutions. It’s then a matter of applying this learning to new situations. Yet, with Google always at our fingertips, it is not uncommon for students and adults alike to not take time to think. Teachers may unhesitatingly field such questions as, “How do I print this,” “Is this graded?” or even, “What time is it?” A teacher looking to guide critical reflection might ask, “Why did we just do this activity?” and be met with, “Because you told us to.” Scary. Thirteen years have already passed since Sir Ken Robinson, an international advisor on education, attested to the importance of creativity. In his TED talk, viewed by more than 50 million people, Robinson affirmed, “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Yet, where is the space reserved for creativity if students are not taking the time to solve “problems” such as how to print a document? For teachers, it often is a knee-jerk reaction to swoop in and solve a student’s “problem.” Arguably, this is not helping but enabling. How do we expect students to think critically and create solutions if we are not providing them the necessary time and space in which to do this? Baby steps. As teachers who want more than anything else to prepare students for today and tomorrow, we must become more conscious and hold fast to our principles. Further, vital to our definitions of learning is the role of student agency. Which begs the question: How much agency do students really have? I’m not talking about whether or not they have the freedom to opt for band over art. Rather, are we providing them a buffet through which they can meander and discover? Or are we asking them to queue up for a linear fast track to university and into the workforce? We need to create an environment in which opportunity and varied experiences are cornerstones, as students are empowered to determine their course of study. Where passions are followed both inside and outside school walls. Where balance is central, and unscheduled time is safeguarded. One attribute of the International Baccalaureate (IB) profile is “understanding the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives—intellectual, physical, and emotional—to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.” This looms large as students are pushed and pulled, the various competing forces and pressures to get high marks in seeking to set themselves up for the next steps, for futures that are moving targets. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65 percent of grade-school children will end up in jobs that have yet to be created, professions being born out of the ether. Consider a recent study by McKinsey Global Institute. “By 2030, up to 800 million of today’s jobs could be replaced by automated technology.” This beckons a necessity not only to question curriculum and what is being taught but also how we are teaching. Are students being asked to inquire in order to extend their learning? And is the expectation for students to create solutions and communicate their learning effectively to others? Not just in science or a design technology course, but across subjects? It seems essential that we do so, in order to ensure student readiness for whatever the future might hold. Years ago, a viral YouTube video titled “Stuck on an Escalator~Take Action” presented a humorous yet ironic truth, as two people stood stuck on an escalator. Instead of stepping forward, they remained standing, awaiting “rescue” as they screamed out for help. The pair was frozen, expecting others to solve the problem for them. As entertaining as the example might prove, it exemplifies just how common the aversion to problem solving is, whether in our classrooms, schools, or society at large. Though we might not be escalator mechanics, we certainly know how to solve the problem of being stuck on an escalator. Do we stand still? Do we google, “How to get off stuck escalator?” Do we scream out for help? Or do we simply walk on up? This is our zeitgeist challenge: to prepare students to confidently step forward into a future where inquiry, solution creation, and transference are imperative. Matt Piercy is a middle school social studies teacher at International School Bangkok (ISB). He was inspired by ISB’s actionable definition of learning.

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