What is learning, exactly?

Is the possession of knowledge synonymous with learning? What is learning? Here’s a piece exploring this, by Joanne Yatvin, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English who now supervises student teachers for Portland State University. She also writes books for teachers.

By Joanne Yatvin

Back when I was a child, an important rite on the first day of school each year was the handing out of textbooks.  By the time we had reached the middle grades we could expect to receive a math book, a reading book, a geography book, a history book, a spelling book, a science book, a language book, and maybe a health book, too.  Having all those mysterious tomes piled on our desks that first day was a thrilling experience, especially if some of them were brand new, fresh smelling, and colorful.  All the fifth-grade knowledge in the world was spread out right before our eyes and belonged to us for an entire year!

With a sense of pride and status we carried the whole load back and forth between home and school those first few days, making brown paper covers to protect them and showing them off to our approving parents.

Soon, however, our textbooks began to be used as files for our old homework papers.  We drew hearts with our initials and someone else’s inside the front covers and guarded our artwork from prying eyes.  By mid-year many textbooks were used as screens for our desks, behind which we giggled and wrote notes to our friends.  When some of our classmates inscribed “Bored of Education” or “In case of fire throw this in” across the page edges, the rest of us admired their daring honesty.

Today, although textbooks are still a significant part of the school experience, their role has diminished.  Fewer subjects are considered important enough to merit a text of their own, and technology has become not only a supplement, but also a substitute for them.  Besides, textbooks are very expensive these days, and in such subjects as geography and science, some of their content is short-lived.

On a philosophical level, however, many educators question whether the textbook approach is the best one for student learning.  That time-honored custom is based on the assumption that everything students need to know is contained in textbooks, and learning is merely a matter of reading them, understanding, and remembering.  Even if that were so, research has shown that textbook approach produces mostly short-term remembering.  That is, students do well on tests immediately following textbook study or review, but in the long run they forget much of what their teachers thought they had learned.

A more significant objection to the textbook approach, however, is the growing conviction that the possession of knowledge is not synonymous with learning.  Many of our most effective teachers believe that their students have to be able to adapt, apply, expand, and think critically about knowledge in order to function in the real world as wise, ethical, and productive individuals.  As a result, these teachers are using one or both of two other instructional approaches to produce more successful learning.  One is a “generative” approach, in which students create something new from their knowledge.  It could be a play about a historical event, a survey of their schoolmates to determine their attitudes or behaviors, a set of math problems drawn from their everyday experiences, an experiment to test a popular assumption about bullying, or a poem inspired by one they’ve read.

The other approach is an “exploratory” one in which students interact with people, places, and information in terms of their own ages, interests and abilities.  They do not stop at remembering facts about events, such as the American Revolution, but work on to explore the physical conditions, political forces, and individual personalities connected with them. Through field trips, watching videos, reading biographies and firsthand descriptions, and examining relics and memoirs of the times, they are able to gain a much deeper and more personal understanding than any textbook can give.

In light of these deeper and more authentic approaches to learning, we have every reason to expect that the teachers using them enable their students to learn more and retain their learning much longer than their predecessors.  But, unfortunately, the standardized tests that predominate classrooms today are keyed to a textbook approach and tell us nothing about students taught in different ways.  Nevertheless, there is an informal test we could use that might give us the information we seek and convince the textbook and test supporters:  we could examine the work of large numbers of student generators and explorers to see if any of them have written anywhere, “In case of fire, throw this in.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 11, 2013