Looking At Learning Differently

At the start of the summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative book writing retreat with 10 other authors. The project, otherwise known as #EdWriteNow, was organized by my good friends and professional colleagues, Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza. Jeff and Joe approached Routledge Educational Publishing with the idea of having educators from across the country get together to write a book for a cause. What happened after that is history!

While the thought of participating in this retreat just days after starting a new job gave me some anxiety, in the end, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. This was about participating in a project that would contribute new ideas to the educational landscape. This was about engaging in reflective practice with professional friends as we fleshed out ideas, opinions and beliefs. This was about changing the way we think about practices we encounter and engage in each and every day within our profession. This was about writing a book where all the proceeds would go to the Will To Live Foundation. This was about making a difference with a group of people who I respect and have learned so much from over the years. To get more information about the project, check out Jeff’s blog post from last week that frames the experience and spotlights the work he did in the first chapter where he reflected on changing the way we look at change!

For my contribution to the project, I was tasked with changing the way we look at learning. While I had studied the notion of social learning theory as part of my dissertation study, I hadn’t really thought about the way I defined learning in school. Yes, I often think and talk about what learning could and should look like in our classrooms but I hadn’t pushed myself deeper to think about how I defined learning. What is learning? How does learning happen? Who is involved in learning? And how can we determine that something was actually learned? These were just some of the questions that I wrestled with as I considered the construct of my chapter. 

This was a whole new realm for me because while I consider myself a learner first and educator second, I never wrote about learning in a way that connected to my daily practice and went beyond the surface. I began my writing journey by trying to flesh out a definition for learning that resonated with me and spoke to my experiences as a learner. The quote above speaks to my understanding that learning is a social construct that affects permanent change in an individual based on their experiences. The following is an excerpt from my book where I offer my answer to the question what is learning? You can check it out here… 

“… What is Learning?

Defining learning is like asking someone to define the concept of love – it is a somewhat abstract notion that we have all experienced, we can all probably talk about the feelings associated with it, and we might be able to describe what it looks like but, actually defining it is a whole other story. Fortunately, there have been dozens of psychologists, sociologists and researchers over time who have taken on the task of defining learning. While there are many variations of the definition, here a couple of examples that capture the essence of learning as it is defined in most spaces:

“Learning has been defined functionally as changes in behavior that result from experience or mechanistically as changes in the organism that result from experience.” De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, Moors, 2013
“Learning is about any experience for a person that leads to permanent capacity change and not necessarily biological in nature or related to age.” Illeris, 1999

The common threads are immediately visible – learning is about a change in behaviors; learning is about experiences and subsequent changes; and learning does not happen in a silo or as a result of someone’s biological makeup. Learning is a process or journey that a person embarks on that then impacts their thinking, actions or opinions moving forward. Learning is about a permanent change in a person. Learning is about being informed and doing things differently because of what was learned. Learning is about social interactions. Learning is about thinking and then thinking differently. Learning is about living and changing over time. 

Learning is not a straightforward process that simply revolves around information provided by others. Learning is not passive or easy. In fact, learning is a lot of work – a lot of hard work that pushes educators to a point of discomfort. Alison Eyring, CEO of Organisational Solutions, recently developed a powerful analogy between learning and an oyster when she said, “The challenge of learning by experience is like sand in the oyster; it’s irritating and uncomfortable at the time, but you can end up with a beautiful pearl.” What an amazing analogy – learning isn’t mindless or uncomplicated or momentary; instead learning is a time consuming journey that will likely be irritating and uncomfortable, both literally and figuratively, because the end result will be change. Whether a change in behavior or a change in thinking, learning will lead to change and change can be unsettling and difficult for people. But, learning can also yield beautiful results, much like when the pearl emerges from the oyster, because learning can provide people with opportunities that, while inconceivable at the start of the journey, are pregnant with possibility. Learning, when allowed to unfold in a meaningful way, can help people change, evolve, and develop into a better version of self.      

Eyring went on to connect the notions of learning and development because ultimately learning is about someone’s ability to develop and grow. The research about development speaks to the fact that 70% of people’s development comes when they have certain experiences that present a challenge, like reviving a failing project/student/lesson, implementing new procedures, structures or processes, handling a challenging parent/educator or stepping into a more comprehensive role. What about the remaining 30%? Well, 20% of development is support provided by educational leaders or colleagues, and the last 10% of development is actually formal, structured learning. This is it – this is what learning looks like in life. Learning is development and it is a lot of work that requires the learner to be actively engaged and have ownership over experience. Learning can be annoying, beautiful, messy, without answers and life changing all at the same time if we create the conditions to let our students and educators actually learn.”
While this is just an excerpt from my chapter, it captures the central message – what learning is and how can we reimagine the way it looks in our schools. The change journey continues in chapter 3 of the book written by my new friend Kayla Delzer who offers her powerful perspective on changing the way we look at relationships in schools! Check out her blog here because she will be sharing her experience in the coming days. 

In the end, I know that the #EdWriteNow writing retreat was a meaningful learning experience for me because it is one that changed me forever. Not only did it help me better understand the structures that should be in place to nurture collaborative learning experiences but it pushed me to flesh out my thinking around learning (and I made a bunch of new friends who I respect and appreciate). I was uncomfortable throughout the retreat because I wasn’t sure of my destination but when I allowed myself to appreciate the journey, I quickly realized that is where the learning was happening.