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How I Learn; How It Teaches Me to Teach

This reflection is written at the prompting of my participation in OpenBrookes’ First Steps in Learning and Teaching MOOC.

I feel as though I constantly refine my understanding of how I learn. Fundamental to how I learn are three factors: (1) a sense that what I am learning has relevance to my life, (2) the belief that I have choice in what I am learning and  how I am learning it, and (3) the opportunity to test and interact with what I am learning, to remix it and rework it, in order to develop an understanding of it. I think these are common ways of thinking about good, active, experiential learning experiences, and it is no surprise to me that they work well for me.

If I were to go through the K-12 system these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was diagnosed with a mild form of ADHD. I don’t pay attention to lectures for more than a few minutes. I can rarely sit still without writing notes, focusing on something else, working on something on my iPad, or falling asleep. Indeed, when I go to conferences, I can hardly stand sitting in presentations without simultaneously doing something else on my iPad. Often I convince myself to pay attention simply so that I don’t appear rude. However, I tend to think of traditional classrooms as being spaces where I don’t learn, as being irrelevant to my interests (even when they are in a program I very actively chose), or (more recently) as being very poorly designed and instructed.

Thankfully, I have had enough other resources around me to still do well in school. So, nobody had much reason to pathologize me. However, if I hadn’t had some incredible learning experiences in non-traditional classrooms, I think I would have developed a sense over time that school was not for me. Because of these teachers — teachers who made space for my interests and created in-class activities and assignments that worked from what was relevant to me at the time; teachers who gave me a great deal of choices; and teachers who gave me opportunities to test and work out my ideas — I saw that education (and learning environments) has the potential to actually teach me things. Without this, I’d believe that learning only worked when I taught myself, and in the occasional lucky moments when what I wanted to learn aligned with what I was being taught.

One of my early experiences feeling very empowered as a learner has stuck with me to this day and has helped me understand myself in this way as a learner. As a teenager, I grew up at the same time that software development was becoming more accessible to non-engineers. I learned HTML and CSS and taught myself to build web pages. I slowly learned other programming languages. I taught myself everything through reading, experimentation, testing, failing (sometimes succeeding) and then iterating to try again. I always had a different type of project going. The fact that this learning was encouraged (or at least not actively discouraged) helped me realize that I could be an autodidact.

This, combined with the few teachers that awakened me in significant ways, combined to make me pretty confident about how I learn and what works best for me. When I want to, I can turn even bad learning environments into ones I can take things away from. But most of the time, I simply do what I’ve always done — pay attention in class when it serves me and do something else when it doesn’t — and just do it with less of a sense of guilt.

It “catches an edge” for me when teachers pathologize how I learn. Old school tech policies that frame my iPad use as rude or distracting, assignments that are intensely prescriptive, boring lectures that I “should be paying attention to” and so forth are all subtle ways of telling me that the way I learn isn’t good enough or isn’t right.

I think this insight into my own learning really helps me develop a respect for my students’ learning experiences. So much of college teaching happens under the false pretense of students making choices. I often hear faculty say things like, “it’s on them to pay attention; they are paying for it; they can decide what they want to get out of it.” I like the idea that students have as much choice as possible, but this is a false choice. Classrooms that are organized around what is comfortable for the teacher are rarely attentive to the many ways that students learn and grow. Universal Design for Learning has become an important idea for me as I rethink how I teach. It helps that I am one of the people that would stretch what was necessary for a course to be universally designed.

The concept of Lifewide Learning is also relevant to me. If teachers had paid attention to what I cared about through the years, they would have known that I was really involved in math — it was just in learning programming, not in boring math problems. I was also very involved in writing, but not all that interested in the writing I was asked to do at school — I wrote for the websites that I made, I wrote answers to people in public forums, I wrote emails, and so forth. I even developed some skill at writing to different audiences. I was interested in history and social problems too — I argued online in chatrooms and forums, I read on Wikipedia and other informational sites. All of this was self-motivated learning that teachers could have picked up on and really built upon in meaningful ways. This isn’t to say I learned nothing in school. I was pretty strategic about doing as little as possible to still get a good grade. But I could have really learned a lot that stuck with me if anyone had been able to pay attention to everything that was going on outside of school.

As I’m thinking more about my teaching experience, I imagine different ways I could organize my assignments to draw in and build upon lifewide learning. Different ways of engaging their motivations and passions. Different ways of helping them retell stories they’ve come upon about their own learning — especially when they are pathologizing or shaming. I’d love to hear about the ways people do these kinds of things.