Saturday, August 21, 2010

What’s the Point of School (Part four) - Key Psychological Resources of Good Learners

From Guy Claxtons “What’s the Point of School, Rediscovering the Heart of Education” is a list of key resources that are basically common sense habits of mind that we’ve forgotten about or, for some reason, don’t focus on in our classrooms and when building education systems:
  • Curiosity
  • Resilience
  • Balancing imagination and logic
  • Being able to ask for help and take feedback without getting upset
  • Being able to take a step back from a difficult situation
I intend to unpack the ideas and applications behind these concepts as I understand them, giving examples that I’ve noticed from students in my classroom or from my own learning experiences across various fields.

Curiosity - the desire to learn
If someone is interested in a wide range of topics, or can find something of interest within a new topic fairly easily, then they are more likely to experience a wide range of learning experiences.  This is because they will more easily engage with new material and new challenges through the desire to learn about these interesting things.  The more topics they engage with, the more learning will happen, and the more cross-topic links they will make, further enhancing their range of interests and learning experiences.  It is true that learning leads to better and more efficient learning.  This is why all learners are capable of great things.  Even those who are very slow to begin with can accelerate the learning process over years of dedicated persistence in actively learning.  Yesterday I wrote about learning within a sporting context and the idea of curiosity is relevant because that is how you find out what you want to know and what you need to know to accomplish a goal.  

Resilience - Sticking with it till you’ve got it
Clearly, someone will be a better learner if they try hard to understand something or if their curiosity is enough to keep them going when a concept seems to be taking a long time to master.  The same is true for technical skills, not just academic knowledge.  If you are learning how to vault a wall you must develop strength and technique.  Technique to master the most efficient way and strength to be able to perform the technique properly.  Both strength and technique take time to develop, likewise memorisation when learning vocabulary in an academic context.  If a learner is not resilient enough to be able to stick with the task over a long period of time, maybe even years, then they will not learn anything that is particularly difficult and time-consuming to learn.

Balancing imagination and logic - creativity and practical purposes
To learn new things we need to be able to think outside the square using our imagination and creative talents.  To apply concepts we must also be able to think creatively.  In physics we learn about many different equations.  The easier questions tell us which equation to use and the harder ones expect us to work out which two or three or more equations are appropriate to use.  This ‘working out process’ is the creative application of the knowledge of equations.  If we jump to the field of art and design we can see a wide range of imagination and creativity, but until we consider the practical purpose it is a fairly empty skill to be able to ‘draw a pretty picture’.  Good art considers the audience and tries to communicate using ideas and images that the audience will understand. Design can’t just produce the latest trendy architecture, it also has to consider the practical side of structure and purpose.  

Going hand in hand with creativity and practicality is impulsiveness and planning.  If we try and understand creativity we will see that there is something “out of the blue” and impulsive about it.  Too much impulsiveness leads to recklessness and abandon, ignoring the real needs of the people and plans around us.  At the same time, we can focus on practical issues so much that we lose the ability to meet the needs of warmth and emotion that make us human.  If you consider for a moment, that warmth and emotion is linked quite strongly to creativity and humanity.  This is what separates us from the animals, and makes the human being something special.

Being able to ask for help and take feedback without getting upset
There are two parts to this.  Firstly, being humble enough to ask for help when you know (or even just suspect) that you need it will get you out of a hole that is caused by pride and fear of being seen to be a failure.  This is the curse of young people who are pushed ahead in class or year level when they are not yet developed enough in character to admit when they are wrong or need help.  There is the high stake of having to maintain your perceived “smarts” to justify your position in the advanced group and so any weakness or lack of knowledge is not something that you want to admit.  The reality is that you will move forward so much better if you can share your weakness and your struggle so that others who have been there, or are there, can support you to higher development.

Secondly, we can see that you must be able to remain calm or even happy when receiving correction.  It’s not a problem for most of us to receive positive feedback without getting upset but if the criticism is negative it can be cutting to our ego.  Too often we have a misplaced self-confidence that we feel we can be more than we are just by telling ourselves that we are.  It is hard to grow from this position because we don’t have a true picture of the foundation to build upon.  You can’t grow tomato plants if you pretend there is enough nutrient in the concrete which you plant it in.  If we have a realistic view of ourselves and our need for outside input to enhance our current condition, then we will be more likely to apply advice joyfully, knowing that we are improving.  If we think we are more than we are, or are trying to maintain a facade while knowing the truth about ourselves, we will reject that which will grow us.

Being able to take a step back from a difficult situation
When you are upset, or have dealt with just one too many criticisms of your work, especially when they are coming from yourself or someone close to you, it is of enormous advantage if you can take a deep breath and sort of “reset” your emotional state.  If we let our emotions get on top of us we are more likely to miss the breakthrough that comes from persistence and worrying away at a difficult problem.  If we get angry at someone telling us we are wrong, even when we know or suspect they are right, we will have a hard time taking their advice because of stubbornness and pride.  Sadly, that person giving us advice will also be less likely to give us feedback in the future because of the angry response which conditions them to keep away.

It is useful to be able to look at yourself and assess your emotional state.  This way you can learn what triggers you and when you need to take a mental step back to breathe.  Taking rest when you need it is one of the hardest things to learn, especially when you have a test the next day and you have a set amount of material to get through.  Sometimes it will be more beneficial to your test results to just stop there.  It is also worth noting that in the bigger picture, and what Guy Claxton is getting at in his entire book, is the reality that the test doesn’t really matter.  What matters is your personal development and ability to cope with life.

Life is hard and all of the above attributes build towards a good learner and a good liver.  You can’t have as much fun, happiness, joy, and even love in your life without these skills.  I hope they will help you.