Learning Curve

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a couple of questions Roland Barth asked during an institute (Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership) I attended last summer at the Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“When was your learning curve off the chart? and What were the principal elements of that experience that made it so?” And, ultimately, “What conditions lead to learning for the majority of students?”

The questions were intended to lead us toward some universal truths about learning.  The list of experiences ranged from the exciting (traveling/adventuring in new environments), to the challenging (overcoming loss), to the very essence of survival (battling cancer).  From those broad experiences, we distilled some commonalities: engagement, relevance, personal commitment, community and novelty topped the list.

For most adults this list comes as little surprise.  While we are often forced to learn and perform specified tasks for our jobs (unless you find yourself self employed or in a field marked by autonomy), we can, by and large, choose what we want to learn based on our interests and curiosities.  Yet, for students, who come to school brimming with curiosity and in awe of the world, they often find learning environments devoid of the type of stimulus that fosters curiosity, cultivates engagement, and builds community.

What can we do to balance the basic tryptic of educational needs: learning standards, teacher/school accountability, and engaged/inspired student body?

And is the stimulus package going to help us do that?

News reports on the matter are mixed, at best.  The NY Times’ recent article on Arne Duncan uses the same, tired language that has hampered most innovative reforms: performance, achievement, and tougher standards, without providing an anecdote or reasonable progression. I’m reminded of the old Texas saying, “If all you’ve ever done is all you ever do, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.”

I did read one article through the Associated Press written by Libby Quaid that suggests the money will go toward transforming schools based on progress in four areas:

  • Boosting teacher effectiveness and getting more good teachers into high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Setting up data systems to track how much a student has learned from one year to the next;
  • Improving academic standards and tests;
  • Supporting struggling schools.

However, even if this is true, I wonder how pervasive the The Heritage Foundation’s view on education as part of the stimulus package is (meaning: will Limbaugh, Hannity, & Fox spread the word?) and what sort of hurdles will that present when trying to move toward innovative change.

What I do know is that if we all take a few minutes to think about the learning experiences that mattered most to us, experiences in which our learning curve was off the chart, and then work to create learning environments that replicate those conditions (within reason), perhaps we can begin to bring about transformative change in a way that inspires not just students, but also teachers, administrators, and perhaps most importantly, would be teachers.

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn