Learning Through Teaching

We are always asking our learners, “What did you learn? ” In fact, the best teachers continually question learners throughout their learning. The process means more than the product and we have to nudge our learners along the way.

Recently, I led my Littles (7-year-olds) through the design cycle as detailed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student

The project centered around a national competition wherein learners needed to use recycled milk cartons to create an invention. It sounds simple, but my fascination with Juliani and Spencer’s book provoked me to follow through with fidelity and really let my Littles go through the process without any objections, interjections, decisions, ideas (you get the picture) from me.

As I journeyed with my learners? I started to recognize what I was learning. Thus, this soliloquy is really more about what my children taught me through the process–instead of what they learned. (However, they learned a lot, too! AND won $1000 for their invention!)

(The Little General. 1, 120 milk cartons and a whole lotta love!)

Voices of my Littles….

“I learned that you always need to be willing to change the design even when you think you’re doing what you want.”

“It might be better with changes or what you’re doing doesn’t really work so you need to change it.”

“I learned that you need to do a little bit of the building and then take a step back and see if what you’ve done looks like you want it to, or else it might be too late.”

“Sometimes when you work with people, you need to listen and not just talk because they might have good ideas.”

Reading these written reflections, it was evident that the lengthy process of the design cycle paid off in both cognitive and affective ways. But what about me? What did I learn as the teacher–the facilitator?

I wish I had the very first text I sent my best teacher friend about this project. I think it said something like, “What was I thinking? There is crap everywhere in my classroom. Their ideas are endless. Their drawings are unintelligible. I don’t know if they can do this. I don’t know if I can do this.” (I ate my words tenfold and she is still reminding me!)

I also thought I didn’t want to invest ALL this learning time and have nothing at the end of it. I mean, I get process learning–and that the product is not the purpose. But, if you’re going to commit to weeks of learning, you want something at the end of it. Right?

So. Here’s what I learned and I hope each of us can apply some of these principles to our own repertoire when we give the process learning to our learners.

  1. Kids can do WAY more than we think. We know this intuitively, but we don’t allow them to do it. We cannot steal the experience from our learners. (My Littles used glue guns and spray paint! The comments I absorbed from my colleagues gave me a chance to say, “Why would I do this for them if they can do it themselves?”)
  2. The process still needs planning. Too often we dabble with process tasks. We pose an issue, a challenge—and we say go for it. If we don’t have a plan, a direction we want to go, within the parameters of student choice, the process will stall. It’s a fine line between planning the process and dictating the steps–but seeing the end at the beginning and creating a roadmap (with obvious forks in the road and rest stops!) is helpful.
  3. Kids need TIME to play and think and explore. In other words, we rush learning. We demand answers. We have to be impeccable with our wait time. The next time you pose a question, time yourself for one minute–without accepting a response or offering a follow-up question. It’s HARD. Why? Because we feel we do not have enough time ourselves to teach “everything we need to teach.” It’s one of those things that pays off tenfold if we give our learners the time they need, the process is evident and typically promotes a worthy project.
  4. Questioning leads learners to greater thinking and true ownership. I had parents come in to help with engineering for this project. Oddly enough, three parents came for one morning. Only. (I think they realized the children had it under control!) However, during the visit, one parent was unhappy with the engineered project one group was working on. (It was the steam engine part of a locomotive.) She lamented to me, “I think they need to do this differently. There is a much easier way.” I asked her to explain her thinking to me. She did and then asked, “What are the rules for this contest?” I said, “Well. I assume it should be kid created. But my rule is it WILL be entirely kid created.” She was frustrated, so I joined the group. I simply said, “Ah. I see what you’re trying to do here. Is there a way you could create this same idea–faster?” Voila! They all suggested various things and combined a couple of the suggestions, adjusted the design–independently–all with a simple question. Yep. It would have been easier to say, “Hey guys, why don’t you use one piece of cardboard instead of these strips.” But there is no learning in that. (For anyone!)
  5. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. We must stress to learners that the process does not need to be perfect. In fact, if it’s perfect, there’s no learning in the process. We have to revise. We have to evaluate. We have to let go of the fear of doing it wrong. We have to grow comfortable with the discomfort of not being perfect. How do we do this with kids? We get them to move on. We get them to sketch ideas instead of draw with keen detail, especially on a brainstorm draft. We teach them how to think flexibly. We show them Piccaso! We don’t expect perfection. We stress process over product. We also share our own mistakes.
  6. Learning is MESSY. I don’t mean just the “stuff.” But that’s messy, too. The thinking. The doing. It’s not always consistent. It’s not always even coherent (especially with 7-year-olds). But you have to see the opportunity in the mess. And, not just the opportunity to clean it up, but the opportunity to get messier. To dissect. To investigate. To dive deeper. Neat and tidy learning breeds compliance. We need to create frameworks for messy learning. (Stuff, included!)
  7. Celebrate along the way. When we are stressing process, we have to stop and smell the roses along the way. Celebrate! Maybe it’s group dynamics, or a new idea, or someone answering his or her own question. (That’s my favorite celebration. A learner comes up and asks a round about lengthy, take a breath and think first, question..and you just smile blankly until he has no choice but to decide for himself.) Cheer!

So you see, reflecting on what we are learning in the process of teaching–is transformative. You can take those little nuggets of inspiration and translate them across everything you do with your learners.

Back to my initial text to my colleague.

I proved myself wrong. Sometimes we just need to keep moving forward with an idea. We need to practice what we preach to our learners in how we shape their learning for them.