As teachers and former students ourselves, we all know what engaged learning LOOKS like. But do we remember what NEW learning FEELS like?
Learning is a very complicated process. Children learn at their own pace and reach developmental, intellectual and social and emotional stages at different times. Sometimes learning new things can be very exciting. Many of these learning experiences are playing around with technology and seeing what it can do or learning a new fact that you didn't know before. If it's about something you are really interested in, that can be super exciting. But is this true learning? That depends on how you define learning. When you learn something, it needs to be processed and connected to previous learning and stored in memory to be accessed at a later time to scaffold into new learning. But not all learning feels exciting or fun. Why not?
There are several reasons why students (and adults) do not all share an interest or excitement in learning. Learning can be uncomfortable. It's a very uneasy feeling when you don't know something that someone is teaching you. Making sense of new information is the way we learn new things. If you can't connect it to anything you have already learned, you can feel nervous, embarrassed, humiliated or a variety of other negative feelings. Do you remember that feeling? Think of a time when "everyone" seemed to know something and you did not or could not understand something you were learning for the first time.
If your students are showing signs of disinterest, confusion, disengagement (often presenting as anxiety or behavioral issues), chances are, they are struggling with some new learning and it is uncomfortable. Many students act out because they don't want anyone to know that they don't know.
This is why there is a focus now on making mistakes. Giving children permission to make mistakes is important. Or, I would like to suggest, that STRUGGLING to learn a concept is okay too. You may never make a mistake if you don't try, so emphasizing the importance of the struggle is critical. Adults these days talk about children and teen's lack of effort. I think that if we VALUED the struggle and identified what learning can FEEL like over what it looks like, our children would understand that those uncomfortable feelings are all part of the learning process.
I once asked my students before a journal entry on learning new things: "What feelings do you have when you don't get something I am teaching?" (Many identified a perceived belief that they were the ONLY ones that weren't getting it.) They told me they felt "stupid", "embarrassed", "sad". I created this mini anchor chart for you to ask your students this question together. You can laminate it and use a white board pen to record their answers so that you can use it again. The second sheet I created can be used to teach an EXPLICIT lesson on learning new things. Pick a topic that you think many students do not know about and give them the topic. Have them write (or draw) what that topic reminds them of or if they have any background knowledge. Present the lesson with information and have them record some key facts (or represent this with drawing for younger students). Encourage discussion throughout. Then, have students complete the AH-HA section if they made any new connections or learning. Do not discuss this section until after they have recorded it. It's okay if some students don't have anything. This will identify that the students have not yet learned it. They can record what others have said if they like it and have made new connections from others' learning. It's a great start for students to see the process of learning.
Click HERE to download your own set.
Above all, we are all continuous learners all of our life. If students don't see learning as something you just do at school, but rather something that occurs inside and outside of school, they will learn to manage their uncomfortable feelings about learning new things and strive to learn and understand. This equates to more effort, more engagement and less frustration when learning isn't easy. This is like delayed gratification. Children who are in control of their learning are happier, more willing learners.