De-contextualized extract of a conversation between life long friends:
I don’t understand how these teachers cannot learn this, you just get in and do it. If it doesn’t give you what you want, you just do something else.
Maybe they never actually learned anything like that. Maybe the only way they can know something is by reading a book about it.
And a light bulb explodes!
Perhaps it was the collective consciousness, perhaps just pure slight of hand, but the very next day I took some books from my neighbour, one of them was by J.J. Rousseau Emile, or on Education. I vaguely remember the title from my Sociology of Education course at Uni, but I had no detailed recollection of anything deeper than that Rousseau set the foundations of the ‘free learning’ or learning for the modern, democratic, free generations, unburdened by existential suffering or ruthless aristocratic hierarchies.
The first principle of this canonical work is
DON’T TEACH, BUT LET THE CHILD BE INSTRUCTED BY EXPERIENCE
Some fifty pages later he declares that reading should be taught (to children under twelve) for practical reasons, not to seek knowledge from books.
Thanks to google, I instantly found out that I was not the only one intrigued by this approach. Not only that, but looking back at my life, the reason why I didn’t remember anything about Emile was because I read about him in the sociology and pedagogy books, I didn’t really experience it, he was never a part of my reality, a small fragment to occupy my memory because I felt his presence with two or more senses. Last week, I experienced the experiential learning with full awareness and appreciation. I jumped into the middle of the cycle, somewhere between acting and experiencing. After a short reflection stage, I am now thinking about how I can use this knowledge I gained in my, well, life!
Learning by example
If I learn by experience, and demonstrate this to my students, perhaps they should accept it, too. It is crucial to talk about learning strategies and meta-cognitive processes that enable the knowledge or skill retention. This kind of hopeful attitude could take time and a lot of unripe fruit could drop on the ground prematurely. There is, though, a long line of those teachers in my schooling years who managed to transmit the wisdom of life not by direct teaching, but by being consistent and fair. Consistency is the trait I grew to admire the most. By acting consistently in the classroom, the students perceive the true personality, they establish a solid relationship with the subject, and this stable environment opens the stage for them to discover their unique interests and preferences.
When it comes to teaching a language, reading and writing in particular, what kind of example may I set or be to my students? I suppose I could be reading a book during the break, or is that too low-minded? We could be reading together, and I could be sometimes making the mistakes that sound like the mistakes they are making. How about creating a newsletter, in which I write the shortest article? It might be too daunting to bring my own book to them, but what about a comic book? I would think that the more I offer them, the better the response might be. It is crucial not to overwhelm students, especially those at the beginner level. I once designed a monster and showed it to my child class. They then had to make their own monster. So, I made an experiment. I did not show my monster to the other group, and I must say that their monsters were way more imaginative, with out-of-this-world names and body parts. I realized that the children in the first group tried to follow my example too closely, their ideas were ‘pre-contaminated’ to the extent that some actually named their monster in a similar way! So, having an example in a creative task was not as fruitful as I had hoped. Perhaps the focus, while demonstrating the ‘example’ action, should not be on the result, but the process. Not the product or content, but the strategy how to arrive to the finished product. Also, enticing and encouraging can sometimes be contra-productive. In the case of learning by example, the track to take is ‘let it be’. It is the outer one, the longest, but with a lot of consistency, the intelligent people in becoming will start modelling the behaviour, or attempt to acquire the target skill.
Since the early seventies, David Kolb has been developing, perfecting, and applying his Learning Styles Inventory based on his Experiential Learning theory. He has developed a matrix, a measurable representation of how each person learns, while expressing his or her learning style preference. A natural next step was developing a similar matrix for teachers or educators. There is a free online questionnaire you can take, and find out your teaching style. You will get a detailed explanation of the background and what this means for you. What I find most fascinating is the following steps, the upgrade, the ‘learner 2.0’, who is not stuck in his old, preferred, ways, but realizes that each situation requires a different approach, another style, and a new cycle of learning.
According to Kolb’s recent findings, there are nine learning styles, spread over the two-dimensional area, along the horizontal axis of active experimentation-reflective observation and the vertical axis of concrete experience-abstract conceptualization. Not one of these is better than the other, and a master-learner, if I can freely create an oxymoron here, is the one who flows across the board, driven by the nature of the situation and what he needs/wants to learn. Do you remember when someone told you that they are a ‘visual learner’, or that they can’t learn anything unless they hear it? Well, it turns out that such people are only half-way on their learning journey. Apparently, knowing your learning style preference does not mean your learning will be high quality if you stick to your style. It means that you are stuck with learning only one kind of content, knowledge, topic, skill, because you are set in your ways.
The key is to recognize which learning style is the best for your particular — temporary — situation, and to apply it until you master whatever you are learning. For example, if I want to learn to knit, I cannot learn it by borrowing a book from my neighbour and thinking how the thread loops around the stitches and what not. I have to literally take the needles, some yarn, and start casting on. After a few rows of knitting and purling, I might revise, undo it, and start over. After a few months of trying different patterns, I may knit a simple sweater. However, if I want to learn some Ayurvedic principles of nutrition, I will probably not go very far by just cooking on my own, copying some Youtube recipes. It would be a good idea to first study some texts, perhaps enroll in a (structured) online course, connect to Ayurvedic practitioners and ask questions in forums. Regardless of the style of learning, the desired strategy is always to follow the four-stage-loop: experiencing — reflecting — thinking — acting. Kolb claims that our learning style preference will determine where we start in the cycle, but only if we follow all four stages can we say that we are learning experientially. [This very much reminds me of the PDSA improvement cycle, which was probably modeled on or inspired by Kolb’s learning cycles. Although, the PDSA cycle always starts with Planning.]The mastery indicator is the ability to spiral the cycles, and to improve or change your learning style in the acting stage based on your reflection conclusions. It’s kind of like that fly which keeps banging into the window pane. The fly aware of Kolb’s learning cycle would, after a moment’s pause, realize the door is open, so it can finally get out before the swatter hits it. Some flies are more proverbial than the others, and, dare I say, humans, too.
From a teacher’s perspective, choosing a teaching style can be an exercise of awareness, challenge, or pure habit and inertia. Having done a bit of research on Kolb’s work, while reading Emile and preparing my classroom materials, I have come to the conclusion that whatever you might call this ‘ideal teaching approach’, it will always have to be multi-sensory in order to be effective. We can look at it from a socio-psychological perspective, but eventually, we will have to give in to neurology. The most convincing aspect of neurological research is the one about brain waves, and its activity, or ‘receptiveness’, in each frequency. Newborn babies are in deep meditative state which is all-observant and ‘hyper learning’. This changes through years, and when we are finally able to focus on one topic, out learning (or absorption) ability is narrowed down to the established neuron pathways.
Just to throw out a quote in support of my claim from Kolb’s website:
According to James Zull, knowledge resides in network of neurons in the neo-cortex constructed through learning from experience. Learning from experience results in modification, growth, and pruning of neurons, synopses and neuronal networks. Learning physically changes the brain and educating is the art of changing the brain.
It is purely my speculation and subjective opinion — the social sciences just go about confirming what the neurologists know and discover. Like all the animals, flies included, we are at the mercy of our senses. This is just how this realm of existence works. When you practice Pratyahara*, you abandon the constraints of this sensory realm and enter a world where other laws rule. For as long as we are confined to the space of three dimensions on the backdrop of time, we will rely on our senses to perceive and understand the world around us. Our experience is crucial in the process of learning because we relate easily to the events, situations, entities, stimulus, that we see, hear, feel, taste, or smell. We know how to interpret this and where to store this meaning. If not, we might look for clues for those who have done it before us — from a role model, by example — or we could resort to a shrewd way of self-improvement by becoming aware of the Kolb’s learning cycles. Thus, perhaps what we experienced with our eyes will not be as impressive as with our skin, by moving, or tasting. Reading a book on knitting does not give me a desired result of my learning, so I will apply the kinaesthetic approach. No amount of turmeric in any dish will teach me much about the doshas and gunas. I actually have to refer to the existing knowledge about them, learn how to combine the ingredients, and then see if it has any effect on me. So for this situation, my kinaesthetic approach (or is it a ‘taste’ approach?) will be quite useless. I have to try to read (visual), and understand (reason, cognition) the theory as well as existing practices (modelling, extrapolating).
In the same way as adjusting my learning style, as a ‘master-teacher’ I should be able to adjust my teaching style according to the content, goal, as well as the phase of the activity. The teaching style matrix corresponds to the learner’s one: facilitator and subject expert are focused on meaning, while the evaluator and the coach are focused on action. The evaluator and the expert are focused on the subject, while the other two are focused on the learner. The skillful teacher navigates from one to the other according to the need of the lesson, and sometimes even within one lesson, or activity. It is important to be able to assume all four roles, when necessary. ‘I’m not that kind of teacher’ is a sign of the teacher counterpart of the above mentioned fly who hasn’t learned Kolb’s learning cycles.
And how did all this reflect on my content-preparation for the forthcoming online courses? According to Kolb’s Educator Role Profile, I ‘scored’ 44% on the Coach quadrant of the matrix, while my ‘weakest’ role was the opposite — the Expert, only 19%. I decided I would not neglect the ‘subject focus’ portion of teaching, and created some lecture-like lessons in Doodly, mostly focused on rules, grammar, and structure of English. I realized that Toonly would be more appropriate for the ‘experiencing’ stage of the lesson, while Doodly would be for the ‘thinking’ part, the reflecting would be covered by Quizlet, and the acting part by an assignment, such as creating a comic book. I am sure that in my own teaching cycle, I will find the way to spiral into another, better, cycle, and find other compatible ways of driving the students through all four stages of the cycle, and will hopefully manage to explain the approach as well. And in the awareness of their learning cycles, they may realize that their preference for some content is the indication of their limitations to learn in another way. Rousseau would advise to instruct what the learner prefers, but I would like to offer an alternative, while showing the strategy how to acquire it as well. It might spark up their interest further and deeper. And perhaps, like Emile, they will be able to say the 18th century ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ educational maxim:
I devised (designed), I entered (got through), I proceeded (acted), I educated myself (I learned)
Je conçois, je pénètre, j’agis, je m’instruis
- * Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of the ‘system’ of Yoga. It is focused on going within, and not using the five senses to experience the external word, but to listen and observe our inner space, the body and the mind. It is typically translated as the ‘removal of senses’, but this translation gives the practice a disservice and misrepresentation.