How do we learn? How should we teach?

Standardized tests; accountability; the rising costs of education; distance learning; MOOCs; competencies; workforce training; STEM; global competitiveness. These are some of the buzzwords that are associated with education today. I’m a professor at a major research university, and like many people in education, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we should teach our students and how people learn.

If you are looking for a bottom line bit of wisdom in this post, you can stop reading now, because I don’t have any to offer you. I just have some personal anecdotes and observations. No wisdom here!

Sketch of The Thinker I made while visiting the Rodin Museum in Paris a few years ago.

Sketch of The Thinker I made while visiting the Rodin Museum in Paris a few years ago.

My first observation is that I have never responded well to education until I am ready for it. I spent much of my high school days playing hockey, thinking about girls, and engaging in the sort of questionable behavior that is usually associated with teens. I didn’t do well in school and didn’t really like it. I tried a few different schools and had the same result, so I don’t think it was the schools. I just wasn’t ready.

After a summer of river running followed by a year of odd jobs and bicycle trips, I found a school that didn’t worry about the fact that I didn’t have stellar high school grades or standardized test scores. St. John’s College didn’t have tests, grades, textbooks, or lectures. For the first time in my life, I was eager to learn. I never liked math until I spent nearly an entire year reading Euclid’s Elements and drawing proofs on a blackboard. But something didn’t completely “take” in that first year at St. John’s, because I didn’t know why I was there, so I dropped out.

I next worked as a shoe repairman for a year, which was both a job and an education in a craft and about people. Competencies there were pretty simple: don’t screw up a customer’s shoes or hand bag. But I did learn a lot more than just fixing shoes, and to this day I have a great respect for people like Wayne who do good work at jobs that many people think are below them in our highly competitive world.

I returned for a second year at St. John’s. I really loved the school and still consider it one of my most important educational experiences. Small classes, round table discussions, and learning for the sake of learning were very enriching. However, I still wasn’t ready for formal education. After my second year in college, I again dropped out, this time for 6 years. However, my education was only just beginning…

My workshop with many tools from Mr. Ginder.

My workshop with many tools from Mr. Ginder.

While St. John’s College tops my list in formal educational experience, one of my favorite educational experiences was my 1 year saddle making apprenticeship with Mr. Ginder. In a very real sense, Mr. Ginder taught me almost everything I know now about leather work. I had a few years of shoe repair experience, but my skills were honed and greatly expanded. There is nothing comparable that I could have gotten from watching YouTube videos or purchasing a DVD instructional class. Just being able to watch him do things and then try them myself with instant feedback was really important. And like any great mentor, Mr. Ginder knew when to leave me alone and let me struggle with something. One of his regular comments when he could see that I was trying too hard and messing up (very common in leatherwork–and life I think) was to chuckle and tell me “you aren’t holding your mouth right!” I got a lot of one-on-one instruction in leatherwork, a lot of insight and practical philosophy of life, and an entire set of saddlery tools that I still use today.

During the 5-6 years that I studied saddlery, worked in a saddle shop, worked on a ranch, and had kids, I somehow matured or at least got myself ready to be receptive to a formal education. It all fell into place after this point, and there wasn’t much that I didn’t like or at least tolerate. However, the high points and most important moments have always been direct and personal interactions with mentors: collecting sagebrush for chemical analysis with Dr. Bill Epstein; discussing physical chemistry with Dr. David Grant; learning to program a computer with Dr. Frank Weinhold; learning about NMR with Dr. Milo Westler; learning about conducting research with Dr. John Markley; learning about the nervous system with Dr. Tony Stretton; reading “The Origin of Species” with Dr. James Crow.

14 strand braided belt that I gave to my graduating PhD student.

14 strand braided belt that I gave to my graduating PhD student.

Yesterday, I graduated one of my students with her Ph.D. She has worked in my lab for nearly 5 years, and we have spent a lot of time learning about new things together. Graduate education is a lot like an apprenticeship. Now that I’m on the mentoring side of the apprenticeship, I realize that the education is much more 2 way than I ever dreamed when I was younger. I always feel as though I’m learning more from my students than I ever teach them.

As I stated above, I have no real conclusion or words of wisdom. I do know that the things that have mattered most in my educational travels have involved interactions between small groups of people, who all are eager to learn. I also know that it doesn’t work until the learners are receptive. The question remains how these concepts get translated to large numbers of students with immediate access to information 24 hours a day.

What do you think?

2 responses

  1. I agree Art! I have learned the most when working with great concentration accompanied by a patient teacher who allows me to make mistakes but provides guidance at key moments. I think it is possible to get closer to this in the classroom setting using flipped classrooms where the students work on problems in teams and the instructors circulate to help as needed. This requires the problems to be highly relevant to the student’s lives, and of course is far beneath the value of a one-on-one apprenticeship. Those of us who have been lucky enough to find such mentors know how much they are worth! For grad students, emeritus professors can be a valuable resource. They have more time to spend with students, and in many cases an interest in passing on their specialised knowledge. I was lucky enough to be mentored by John Steele, an eminent insect physiologist, during his last years of having a wet lab. I will always remember and be grateful for the experience. Thanks for the post.

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