This is my latest commentary for KAXE FM. Thought I’d share it as a post, but you can here it by clicking here and finding it on the Between You and Me page. This one is for you, Rita. Hope I told the stories right.
Learning is as Easy as Breathing
Dr. Rita Smilkstein is an educator and an innovator. Early on in her career, she found herself facing a room full of teen age boys who hated school and didn’t want to be there. They were noisy and disruptive and she thought they just didn’t want to learn. One day she brought a bunch of car magazines that she thought they’d like and said. “Here’s the thing. I want to teach but you don’t want to learn. So those of you who don’t want to learn can take these magazines to the back of the room and the rest can stay up front with me. It’s okay. I understand and I won’t be upset if you don’t want to learn.” No one moved. She thought they were just self-conscious so she said, “I’ll turn my back while you move.” There was the sound of chairs and desks shuffling, but when she turned back around, none of the students had moved to the back. In fact, they had all moved forward and formed a circle around her desk. That was when she knew they really wanted to learn. She started to consider how all of us are good at something—we learn things on our own all the time. So what happens in school to shut that off. So, she asked the students “What is something outside of school that you are good at? Write down some notes from when you didn’t know how to do it–and how you got from there to being good at it.”
She has since done the same activity with over 10,000 people—and all of them give the same or approximately the same answers over and over again. I was curious or I had a need to know something, I tried it, made mistakes, practiced, asked questions, made mistakes, found some help, etc.
Rita realized that learning is as natural as breathing. It is what the human brain loves to do. It is full of neurons and branching, treelike structures called dendrites that continuously reach for more and more connections until a neural network is formed more sophisticated than any social network could ever hope to be. With each step of the learning process, the neural network grows more dense and rooted.
Early on in her learning, Rita asked another critical question. If everybody learns the same way—why are we not teaching the way human beings learn naturally?
When I was first introduced to Rita’s work, it was through her textbook called Tools for Writing that was originally published by Harcourt Brace but was at the time out of print. I was teaching developmental English at a tribal college on The Pine Ridge Reservation. The task facing me was daunting—a population of mostly older adult students who very much wanted to create a new life for themselves and their children. Like Rita, I was facing a room full of uncertain learners who weren’t really sure they could do this thing called “college.” I decided to follow her path precisely. I started by asking them What is something outside of school that you are good at? It was like opening a window—all of the students had things they were proud of, difficult undertakings, things they had struggled with but learned to do. We talked about how real learning takes place in the brain, these intricate dendrites hooking up with one another over time, step by step.
I can’t explain to you what happened over the first weeks and then semesters as I began to teach students the way they naturally learn. The results stunned me. Students came early and stayed late. They worked together with nasty things like dependent and independent clause. They began dreaming in prepositional phrases. And they loved it. When I explained that dendrites can bloom or prune in just four days—they began to make jokes about a bad weekend where they “killed a few off.”
Rita says that the seven magic words for the human brain are, “See if you can figure this out.” The brain jumps to attention, excited suddenly by possibilities, by innovation, by unseen potentials. The little known fact is that, as Rita says, we were born to learn. Learning is what we do. When the brain is activated by an intriguing thing to solve, it sends off all kinds of cool endorphins and feel good responses. In fact, it gets high naturally from learning.
Most would agree that our schools need innovation—or renovation. Why not begin here, with this most basic recognition of how the brain naturally learns. I’m not an expert on No Child Left Behind, but my experience tells me that the brain is not an empty, passive container that tolerates an effort to shove information in like insulation in a wall. Rita says when all we do is fill in the blanks, our brain builds dendrites for how to fill in the blanks—nothing more. And that is not learning. So, what do you think? Should we see if we can figure this out?
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