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How to rekindle a love of learning in school

“We don’t need to ‘make’ learning fun," said author Doug Thomas. "Learning is inherently fun. We just need to keep it that way.”

What would a high school classroom look like if the students were all like kindergartners, eagerly learning everything they could about the world? What makes this idea seem ludicrous—and why isn’t learning still like this in high schools today?

These questions were asked during the opening keynote session at the Consortium for School Networking’s annual Technology Leadership Conference, held in Washington, D.C. The theme of this year’s conference is “Re-imagine Learning,” and what better way to kick off the event than with Doug Thomas, co-author of the book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change?

“There’s a new game being played in schools today, especially colleges, and it’s called, ‘What does the teacher want?’ [Students are] not there to learn and expand their minds; they just want to know how to please us to do well,” said Thomas, who is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. “It’s not our schools that are broken; it’s the theory of learning that’s broken.”

According to Thomas, the current style of learning is too “binary”—learning is either fun, and therefore not serious, or vice versa. However, learning should aim to be both, he said.

“When you see a little child first start to explore the world, everything is interesting to them. There’s no limit to how learning is fun for them. Then, as they start to move to higher grades, you see that passion drain out of them,” he said.

“I once had a student who was trying to decide her thesis. She asked me what she should write about and, frankly, I was stunned. It’s not my thesis. So I asked her, ‘Well, what are you passionate about?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me that.’ That means that in 15 years [of education], not one person bothered to ask her about her.”

Thomas explained that part of re-imagining learning involves simply knowing your students and who they are, so you can connect on their level. As an example, he cited the Harry Potter book series.

Thomas described how, although kids are never repeatedly tested on Harry Potter genealogy, geography, characters, or events, most children can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the series. This is because the series relates to its readers.

“Take a student who is struggling with physics, and I’m a physics teacher. I could just sit him down, go over material with him, but wouldn’t he learn more if I, say, found out that this student liked martial arts? I could ask him to show me some moves and then ask how one movement is better than the other. Then I could say, ‘…Explain to me how these movements are different in physics.’ This student would then be motivated to learn—interested about learning to communicate better with me and to better understand his own passion,” said Thomas.

Another reason why the Harry Potter novels are so popular is because they open up the imagination.

“Where imaginations play, learning happens,” explained Thomas. And this is not limited to preschoolers.

An example of classroom “authorship,” or “creating a world of imagination, rather than limiting it,” said Thomas, is to learn by seeking not answers, but questions.

“I once had a tough quiz to give,” he said. “There was a book I’d had the students read, but I couldn’t decide which questions I really wanted to ask them. So instead, I asked them, ‘If you could ask one question to see if someone understood the main theme of this book, what would it be?’ The students spent the entire class period discussing and coming up with some brilliant answers. Their imagination was at play while they were learning.”

Another way to think of the classroom as its own imaginative world is by creating “collectives,” or using social networking and online communities for part of the class. By opening a space for discussion and sharing ideas, the class becomes its own “culture,” with teachers as mentors rather than sages on the stage.

Of course, that’s not to say re-imagining learning will happen overnight.

Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, and a 2002 winner of eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards, was part of the morning’s keynote panel to help bring a K-12 perspective to Thomas’ ideas.

“We have a moral imperative to prepare kids for the future, not the past,” he said. “However, there’s always a challenge of finding that balance between innovation and … accountability and responsibilities. There will always be a need for measurable returns on investments.”

One way Edwards suggested to bridge the two needs is by using digital resources and technology in the classroom.

“I recently toured a class where the younger students were asked to read interactive passages as part of their work. However, they also got to see how they were doing—just like the teacher saw it,” he said. “The little boy I was watching pointed at his screen and said, ‘See this green line? That’s my trajectory. It’s going up because I’m doing better.’”

Edwards continued, “There’s a sense of discovery that’s happening in the classroom with access to digital resources. And if the students know why they’re doing an activity, know how this information is going to affect their future, and can see how they’re doing, it cultivates a sense of responsibility and passion for their learning.”

Thomas and Edwards both agreed that rethinking learning requires educators to rethink assessments.

“We all know good questions when we hear them,” explained Thomas. “We can all see when higher learning skills are being put to use, but the problem we face is in measuring these things.”

Thomas gave an example of a reformed college student: “I had a student come up to me and say, ‘I never really understood what I was doing in college, what the purpose was. But thanks to your class, I’ve stopped drinking every day with my frat brothers, and I’ve started going to class more. I wanted to thank you, because now I know why I’m here and that I want to learn.’”

“What are the metrics for measuring that?” asked Thomas. “How do we assess change?”

The most important thing to remember when trying to re-imagine learning, he concluded, is this: “We don’t need to ‘make’ learning fun. Learning is inherently fun. We just need to keep it that way.”

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Meris Stansbury

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