What does learning look like?

Published by Lori Pickert on July 5, 2012 at 09:07 AM


My 12-year-old son Jack wrote a lovely guest post about why it frustrates him when people say video games are a waste of time or that kids shouldn’t play them. For him, video games fit into a larger picture — they connect to books and movies and making stop-motion films and writing stories. They connect to role-playing games and computer programming. They connect to history and literature.

What does learning really look like?

I’ve worked with teachers who completely supported the idea of child-led learning, but they were uncomfortable with the way it looked in their classrooms. The teacher next door was teaching with themes and pre-decorated her room. Every bulletin board was decorated by the teacher, every wall had colorful posters, and the reading and block areas were adorably set up with little touches chosen by the teacher.

The teacher attempting child-led projects had to start the year with an empty slate for her students. Her walls were empty; her bulletin boards were empty. Her tabletops and shelves waited for the children’s work. The room was left for the children to decorate with their work. Next to her neighbor’s classroom, hers looked bare and neglected.

Once the school year was underway, the theme-using teacher had bulletin boards holding two dozen sets of very similar-looking papers attractively backed with construction paper. Work hung from the ceiling on pieces of yarn. She had made a huge poster talking about the current theme, decorated with the students’ names.

In the project classroom, the bulletin boards were half full of drawings and sketches and xeroxed pages — everything was black and white. The shelves were full of projects-in-progress: to the outside eye, it looked like a collection of garbage on its way to the recycling bin. The block area wasn’t tidy — a large construction sprawled across the floor and stayed there day after day.

The teacher worried about how this looked to her boss, to the other teachers, and to the parents who came in. They looked askance at what seemed to be disorder, mess, and maybe a lack of TLC. Didn’t this teacher want her room to be cute?

To the practiced eye, however, the children in the project room gave off a low hum of purposeful activity. The children were adding to their block structure over weeks; they were working hard on their constructions. They talked excitedly about their work. The drawings that were beginning to cover their walls weren’t ignored — they were referred to again and again. The room didn’t look like much at first glance, but the activity in the room was mesmerizing.

To get to the authentic learning — the involved, intense focus, the flow — you have to be able to put up with the half-formed, messy look of workers who are creating from the ground up. You can’t pre-decorate — you have to let the children paint the walls with their ideas. You have to leave room for them to fill the space with their learning. You have to give them time to construct their knowledge slowly.

Likewise, with a child pursuing his own interest at home, it may not look like much to someone coming in from outside. They may see a child playing a video game, a box of dirty rocks, a pile of empty containers taped together. They may not get it. For you to get it, you have to pay attention. You have to dig a little to see if your child is just making a mess or goofing off or if he’s intellectually engaged and connecting ideas.

Our children are in the world, exploring. We may or may not understand what attracts them and what they’re doing with their interest. We need to take the time and make the effort not just to leave them space to explore, but to learn to recognize and appreciate what’s really happening in the room. We can’t be those casual bystanders who don’t really get it — we have to pay attention so we can know what’s happening under the surface. Because to the uninitiated, learning might not look like much on the surface. Only the engaged mentor knows what real learning looks like.


Comment by J on July 5, 2012 at 12:37 PM

This is so interesting! My son, who is not homeschooled, worked on a project this year that he completed independently with materials we had at home. He was thoroughly engrossed in it for days, working on it immediately after school for large chunks of time, completed the arbitrary requirements, and was proud of his work. He received a poor grade on it b/c it didn't look as "put-together" as the other projects completed by his peers, regardless of the fact that he learned from the project, even if it wasn't as "pretty" as everyone else. He was devastated, and so began our discussion about the fairness of grades and teacher subjectivity.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 6, 2012 at 08:37 AM

gahhhh, that is so disheartening. you would like to think that the teacher would take the time to speak to the students about their projects, in which case she should have seen how excited and interested your son is and how he had done all the work himself.

because, of course, nice-looking projects are often “helped along” (if not done outright) by parents. :^/

a friend of mine had a daughter get really excited about a science fair at her school (i think she was in fourth grade or so) and she had her own idea about what she wanted to do and she did all the work herself. then she was crushed when all the other entries were professional-looking projects mostly done by parents, and the kids barely knew what they had brought in.

and we wonder why students are so apathetic about school!


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