The week before school ended last spring, one of my students asked what I planned to do with my summer vacation. I told him I was taking classes at the local university, and he blanched. He paused a moment and then asked, “But why?” I smiled and told him that I like learning. He shook his head and then gave me a look of disbelief mixed, I think, with pity. We were on the cusp of summer vacation, so I can easily understand his reaction, but I do strive to be a lifelong learner. I think most teachers are addicted to learning. You have to love learning to choose an occupation that keeps you in school for most of your life. We know that lifelong learning is an attitude that can enrich our lives, but I believe it’s important to share this knowledge with our students.
The first step in encouraging our students to become lifelong learners is to dispel the misconception that intelligence is fixed. Many students, and even some teachers, believe that we are all born with certain aptitudes. When I was training to be a teacher, the accepted wisdom was that students came to us with a set ability, and we were to make the most of those innate strengths and weaknesses. We utilized assessments like the Stanford-Binet to determine what we considered intelligence and the potential academic success of our students. That mindset does not encourage a personal pursuit of knowledge. Why expend energy if you simply aren’t capable of getting any smarter? Today, however, the definition of intelligence is more variable.
Intelligence is Malleable
A recent study of cab drivers provides concrete evidence that intelligence is malleable. It can be developed. The right posterior hippocampus is the home of navigational thinking in the brain. Cab drivers in this study showed a strong positive correlation between the number of years’ experience as cab drivers and the sizes of this section of the brain. In a comparative study, adults who were not cab drivers did not show any such correlation. A follow-up study found that even adult brains have a sort of “plasticity” that allows us to continue learning throughout our lives. These studies suggest that with a bit of work, we can actually bulk up our brains just like we can bulk up our muscles with heavy lifting. Sharing research like this with our students helps them to understand and believe that they can develop a growth mindset and improve, regardless of their current aptitudes.
Once we all realize that we can be taught, it’s important to model learning strategies in our own lives. I’ve had some wonderful models of that myself. One of my mentor teachers was a great example of the power and pleasure of continually learning. Patty taught me early that it was important to sign up for all the extra workshops, classes and conferences you can. The goal was not only to maintain certification, but to expand opportunities and stretch your brain. Patty was not afraid to take on content that was totally new to her. When our small school lost our art teacher, the board chose to not refill the position. Unwilling to see the entire program gutted, Patty used her summer to study art and art pedagogy. The next fall, she taught art so that our students wouldn’t miss out. Her regular assignment was seventh-grade social studies, which covers the Eastern Hemisphere. Not only did she take a series of classes on China to prepare, but she saved up and traveled to India so that she could better present that culture to her students. Patty is a serious learner.
Learning Takes Work
I try to model a passion for learning as well. I often use personal stories to help my students connect with me and illustrate how I problem solve. Last year, I shared with them how I’ve always wanted to draw, but I struggled with creating a recognizable stick person. Finally, I decided to stop wishing and start working.
I discovered a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Edwards is a brain researcher who has designed a curriculum that helps word people learn to draw. I began working through her course and I can attest that it takes some work, but I have improved. That, I think, is the key. Learning takes work. But when you can choose what you learn, and you’re willing to dedicate time to practice, the rewards are well worth the effort. As I learned, I shared my “wannabe artist” process with my students: my setbacks, struggles, and strategies. I’m hoping that by honestly modeling my learning journey, my students will see that they can pursue their interests even if they’ve been told they don’t have the talent.
We as teachers need to empower our students to become lifelong learners themselves. No longer are we as teachers the keepers of the keys of knowledge. With the Internet, our students can become the experts. One of my students is an amazing artist, and I made it a point to consult with him, in front of his peers, when I was struggling with a drawing or technique. When any of my students show an interest in a particular subject, they become the class resource. I had a history buff in my dual-enrollment literature class that provided the historical background for every short story we read. My musician in third period could always be counted on to provide a current figurative language example. For the more advanced or more driven students, I can refer them to the multitude of free online courses available from some of the best universities. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs are online courses that cover topics from writing to history to science and beyond. They provide access to content that I can’t offer my students.
Finally, I can teach all of my students how to search for and identify valid and reliable resources where they can learn about anything that interests them. In the end, the ultimate goal is helping our students discover that learning can be fun. Perhaps next time it will be me asking my student what he’s learning next summer, and he’ll return a look of excitement and anticipation as he tells me all about it.
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