Remember what it’s like to be a learner

It is the end of semester and I am thinking about comments from students made to me in the past couple of weeks, comments frequently made at the end of a semester.

“I didn’t know how all of this was going to come together, but now it all fits and every piece was necessary.”
“I understand why __________ was important now.”
“I was a very grumpy student when you said we were doing ________, but now I am so grateful and it taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”

The comments reveal an important aspect of learning – that there is often a period of darkness or fogginess or incoherence followed by a seeing or illumination that comes only at the end, after an opportunity to look back.

The comments remind me that it is difficult for learners to understand what exactly will help them learn. They can certainly provide a great deal of information about what has worked for them in the past when learning, or what their preferences are for learning (and their input along these lines should be invited and valued), but when faced with a completely new conceptual framework and practice, their knowledge of the learning path is limited. They need a trusted teacher, a teacher with a method to her ‘madness’, a teacher who has gone before them and can now lead and guide others along the way. That’s why they’re here.

It is difficult to be a learner, difficult to not see the path ahead, to know there is a mountain to be climbed, but to not be sure of the path or how long it will take or even if they will have the strength to climb. It is a humility. It requires patience and perseverance.

I think I sometimes forget how difficult it is for my students. I get so caught up in how exciting I think the journey is and what they are going to see over the next hill or around the next corner that I forget to be present with them where they are, in their blindness and at my mercy. Learners need to know I’m there, to know their peers are there, and that we’re all in this together. Learners also need a lot of feedback or at least a lot of encouragement and support to keep going when they are stumbling and the ground is moving beneath them…a hand to hold.

As I think ahead to a new semester and new classes, I am reminding myself…

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Remember to ‘foreshadow’, to say this is why we are doing _____, this is how it’s going to fit, this is important because ______. Foreshadowing raises ‘assignments’ out of the mindlessness of hoop-jumping, and into a meaningful learning journey.

Remember to take opportunities to ‘connect back’ so that coherence is found and meaning is illuminated. Every student needs a ‘road to Emmaus’ companion, who helps them see what couldn’t be seen in the midst of the learning.

Remember to build trust through ongoing formative feedback that honours and provides time for the steep learning curve and risk taking all learners must take. This trust will make dialogue possible so that timing can be adjusted, re-teaching can happen, and incorrect assumptions are avoided or corrected.

Remember to let them try and fail and then have the opportunity to try again – to revise, redo and retake…and then to innovate!

Remember to care, to intentionally connect with them, to listen well, to pay attention and then respond. You have all the power to develop and maintain relational trust with your students.

Remember to let your students teach you how to teach them. What works for one, doesn’t always work for the other. They need to know you see their uniqueness.

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

The purest gold, the hottest fire

A high percentage of teachers quit after just a few years of teaching.  For a select few, it might be the right choice.  For the majority, more perseverance could have seen something miraculous occur.

The learning curve is steep, just like on a hike, but the view from the top is worth it.  We feel our reserves dwindling away during the climb, but at the top of the mountain, our confidence, strength, and vision are refreshed.  We return conquerors.

I empathize with those tempted to quit.  Feeling absolutely spent one afternoon after a very hard day during a very hard term, my head hurt too much to focus and I was getting nothing done in the supposedly productive after-school hours.  I locked up my classroom and started my drive home.  I am blessed with a beautiful drive over the Golden Ears Bridge.  It’s worth the money as God continually surprises me with breathtaking clouds painted with gold, silver, and red on their pilgrimage up the valley.  Today it was grey, like the rest of my outlook, and on the inside I was arguing with myself, testing whether fight or flight would win out.

“Look, God”, I told God, “I need you very much right now because I feel I am at the end of my rope.  I need your perspective and I need a reason for continuing to do this.”  I felt without hope and wasn’t in the mood for positive-self-talking myself out of it.  That’s why I knew that the next phrase I heard wasn’t me.  “Aren’t you honoured that I trust you, out of everybody, with my beloved children?”  God said some other things as well, but he had me at “trust“.  The tears began to flow and a weight lifted from me.  I returned the next day with refined perspectives, having rested in God.

Many people give up on the process they are going through because it is hard.  They sacrifice long-term growth for short-term ease.  Failing to appreciate the big picture, they mistakenly focus on the temporary discomfort they are experiencing.  But the purest gold is produced in the hottest fires.  Paul the apostle knew that well.  What is happening is refinement, and we will be better for it.

“I lift up my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1,2)

by Craig Ketchum ’10

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