So, the biggest learning news coming from the Richardson household last week has, as is more often the case than not, little to do with the classroom and everything to do with doing. Two quick stories, both involving my 13-year old daughter Tess:

Story 1

Three weeks ago, Tess decided (on her own) to go out for the track team, something she had never done before. As soon as the coach saw her walk into practice, saw her thin, 5′ 11″ frame, he pointed her over to the high jump pit and said “have at it.” And Tess started learning how to jump. Two things have “jumped” out at me in the interim. First, her high jump learning life has been made up of 98% failure, something my daughter does not deal with especially well when it comes to athletics. I’ve been trying to point out to her that failure, in some cases lots of failure, is a necessary step to success, especially in getting over the high bar. She’s trying to make her body do things it’s never had to do before (just ask her heretofore non-existent ab muscles), and it’s going to take some time to find the rhythm of the run, the jump, the flip and the landing in ways that make her sail over, not into the bar. But here’s the thing: success will not come just on the strength and the muscle memory she gains during the practice on or off the track. (Read: lots of sit ups.) It will also be dependent on her ability to reflect and learn from her failure. She can’t jump 4′ 8″ until she learns to jump 4′ 6″. And while she gets feedback from her coach, she also gets feedback on every jump from the bar, whether it stays or falls as she tries to go over it. How she makes sense of that in her mind and adjusts her efforts will determine her success. The good news is that I think she’s starting to understand this and, even better, she’s beginning to see those connections to other parts of her life as well.

And I love this part: it’s just her. She’s played basketball and field hockey for the last two years, but high jump is all about her. There’s really no team involved. That’s the other thing she’s learning…to push herself for herself. Sure, she wants to do well as a part of the track “team,” but at the end of it, she’s the only one who can make that success happen. No one is holding or adjusting the bar for her.

(Side note: Turns out, she’s pretty good. Keeping in mind she’s only in 8th grade, in her first meet last week she cleared 5′ 0″, qualifying her for the district meet, leaving her two inches short of qualifying for states, and tying her for the school record. Think she’s going to work harder?)

Story 2

Here’s the second part: Her class took a trip to Washington DC over the weekend and, as luck would have it, they were in the House chambers when the very contested vote was taking place on the budget resolution last Friday. She heard Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner speak, saw a bunch of protesters get arrested and thrown out of the gallery, and got a real slice of what democracy (at least what’s left of it) looks like. On the ride home from picking her up at her school last night, she was talking about all of the monuments, the museums and landmarks they visited, and all of the accompanying stories that she heard around those places. Despite the weather, it seemed to have been a pretty excellent adventure. At one point she said, “You know, I really learned a lot on that trip.” No doubt.

The Point

A couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of Gary Stager, I picked up Seymour Sarason’s 2004 book And What Do YOU Mean by Learning? and I’ve been slowly working my way through it. It’s not the easiest read, for me at least, but what keeps me diving in is the push he makes about what we define as learning, something that has been making me increasingly frustrated of late in terms of  the national conversation around schools. Here are Sarason’s two main points for the book

  • First, we’ll never get true “reform” in schools until we come to some consensus on a more accurate definition of learning.
  • Second, that “productive learning” as he defines it doesn’t happen much at all in schools.

Here is a snip from the introduction that gives the flavor of both the style and the thesis:

Learning is not a thing, it is a process…I try on these pages to distinguish between contexts of productive and unproductive learning. And by productive, I mean that the learning process is one that engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literature in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learnng they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? (Boldface mine.)

He’s right. I’ve been pressing this question of “What is learning?” in my presentations lately, and the answers have been intriguing to say the least. Some say it’s the acquisition of knowledge, others say it’s the application of knowledge, and yet others say it’s the creation of knowledge with a whole bunch of other stuff thrown in between.  And when the descriptions move more closely to the type of learning I hope happens in my kids’ classrooms, it’s difficult for many to describe what that looks like in practice.

In the “real” world conversation about schools, how learning is defined is pretty clear. Just do a search for the phrase “student learning” in Google News and you’ll get the gist right away. Just now, here are two of the three most recent results:

“Core courses taken during the school year give students an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of course content as well as prepare students to be successful on the state standardized Prairie State Assessment Exam and the ACT,” said Rosemary Gonzalez Pinnick, associate superintendent for educational services. “Our schools are not only improving processes for monitoring student learning but also are implementing timely and appropriate interventions. Consequently, the summer program has changed accordingly.” (Here)


“Brickhouse said, ‘This bill not only provides financial support for districts to hire teachers during a timeframe that facilitates their hiring the best teachers, it also sends the message that hiring well-prepared teachers is of critical significance to the goal of dramatically improving student learning in Delaware schools. New standards, longitudinal data systems, data coaches, new assessments — all of these initiatives rely on strong implementation by capable and wise teachers.'” (Here)

My sense, and please correct me if you think I’m missing it, is that neither of the people quoted in these snips are seeing the world as Sarason sees it. I read that stuff and just let out a heavy sigh. In fact, I would guess the vast majority of those invested in the conversation around schools right now don’t see it that way either.

But here’s what I see with my daughter…Tess wants to learn more. She wants to learn more about how to high jump and about some of the events she experienced in DC, events that couldn’t be replicated by a text book or a YouTube video or anything else. She’s learning, productively learning by doing, not by studying up and taking a test and moving to the next chapter or passing the test. I’m wanting for more of it to be happening in the classroom. And not just hers.