Real learning

In my twenties, I spent a year teaching English in Greece at a private language school. At first, I thought I got the job because of my education, English skills, or at least gumption (the owner seemed impressed that, a complete unknown, I had taken an overnight boat ride from Athens to Crete on the off-chance that she would give me an interview.) As it turns out, a big reason I probably got the job was my ability to drive a car. The school had a satellite campus in a remote village, and the owner needed someone to drive the other teachers up the mountain three times a week. On the first day of school, I showed up with lessons planned and gradebook in hand, only to discover that the car I was to drive had a manual transmission.

“But you told me you’ve been driving for 8 years!” the owner lamented.

“Sure, but not stick shift! I hardly know anyone in the US who has one!” I replied, worried about losing the job now that my real value was clear, and significantly reduced.

Luckily, the owner thought it more expeditious to teach me to drive stick shift than to find another native English speaker. She hired a driving instructor for me, and asked another English teacher to ride along and translate. This was real learning: dodging through busy city streets in my boss’s car. Careening around blind mountain curves–no guard rails, of course. Waiting for the driving teacher’s instructions to get to me via my translator while learning how to let out the clutch. Trying to make sense of street signs in a country whose language and metric system were foreign to me. Coming to a screeching halt, without stalling out, to avoid running headlong into the flocks of sheep that would occasionally occupy the road. Not to mention my job on the line in a country where I was qualified to do nothing else. Intrinsic motivators, extrinsic motivators, you bet. In no time flat, I had stick shift down.

Years later, this was the story I would tell when offering my own answer to a question I often posed to college students while teaching education courses. I liked to start the semester by asking, “What was one of your most powerful learning experiences?” Usually the first thing that popped into my students’ heads was the most interesting, and their responses spoke volumes about what real learning looks like.

“Teaching my sister piano.”

“Learning Spanish while backpacking through Guatemala.”

“Taking care of my best friend while she was dying of cancer.”

One after the next, students went around the room and shared answers. I did this with perhaps 300 students, and I can count on one hand the number of learning experiences they mentioned that happened in a traditional classroom setting. The experiences that stuck with them, the ones that changed their lives or came to define “learning” in the minds of these would-be classroom teachers, all happened outside of school.

Furthermore, in the discussions that followed, my students expressed that the process of learning something through interest (versus compulsion) taught them other, sometimes unexpected, things and exposed them to new experiences that they chose to explore later. In other words, real learning is self-generating, and a compulsory-model classroom is one of the last places you will find it.

Often, those who are learning about Free Schools wonder how kids will learn about the vast array of subjects currently included in the curricula of traditional schools. This is a topic that warrants several posts, but for now let’s touch on the issue of learning vs. coverage/exposure. To do so, we must agree on a definition of learning, which I will posit is a deep understanding of a topic, including an ability to use this understanding in a variety of situations. And we must agree that this is what we want for our kids, as opposed to a surface knowledge. If we agree to this much, the next question is, how do kids learn? And how can they learn topics that might be perceived as difficult or scary, like mathematics?

“Math is that school subject that we can’t BS our way through,” says Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College and writer for Psychology Today, in his article “Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning.” He makes the case, through references to research and anecdotes from readers, that “Nobody, at least no student, benefits from the thousands of hours of forced math ‘study’ that we put kids through in our schools. The same amount can be learned in a small fraction of that time by kids who are free.”

Take a look, and you might find yourself compelled to read the other two articles in this series, one which calls for teaching less math in schools, the other about children teaching themselves to read.

If these questions of what constitutes real learning fascinate you, post a comment here, or on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear about what real learning looks like to you.

–Michelle Loucas

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