Many of my students, when pressed, struggle to say just what learning is. They can tell you about completing tasks, checking grades, keeping track of emergency passes, and so on. In other words, they are aware of schoolish behaviors. But they can't tell you exactly what's happening when they learn or how one goes about actually doing this learning thing.
I can hardly blame them. If we're honest, most of us teachers aren't much better at communicating the difference. We tend to think of lessons and units in terms of the tasks students will complete. We have a rough time summarizing how science suggests the brain learns, how motivation works in learning and why it matters, and how one can teach students to motivate themselves and attend to whether or not they're learning.
There are actually some amazing weaknesses in our understanding of learning. For example, over 90% of educators worldwide believe that students learn best when material is presented in their individual learning style. (Source: an article from Scientific American.) And you might think, “Dang right! Differentiate for those styles, baby.” But this 90% stat is actually a big bummer because science can't prove that we learn best when we're taught according to our “learning style.” Heck, there's not even agreement on what the learning style list should include! And yet we teach the theory to our students, to our parents, in our schools of education, in our professional development.
But I'm digressing. The point of this post is that in each of our classrooms there is an infinite nuclear power plant of motivation sitting beneath us all. Doing the schoolish behaviors isn't all that fulfilling for all that many people. But learning is amazing. Learning can be emancipatory. Learning can open whole universes (for that's what disciplines are). Learning can deepen and shape our very identity.
So relentlessly teach students this difference. Guide your own professional development toward this difference. Ask hard, philosophical questions during the same hour that you ask hard, pragmatic ones. Think big and small at the same time, day by day, and the slow change will be that both you and your students will think more sharply about what school is for.
This isn't overnight success stuff; it's long, steady hiking in the same direction, upward and onward toward the peak.
Thank you to Laura Hoffman, whose brilliant question got me thinking about this important duality.