For (Deeper) Learning to Occur, Students Need to Know Why They’re Learning Something

If ever we ask a student “why do you need to know this?” and he doesn’t know (or can’t come up with anything more than “for the test”), we need to stop and re-think what went wrong, no matter what the child’s age. If the student doesn’t know why they’re “learning” something, they probably can’t figure out how to apply it meaningfully, that is, with intention. This is not learning and it’s certainly not deeper learning.

I remember visiting a classroom where students had built mini rollercoasters with rubber tubing and popsicle sticks. Using a silver marble, the objective was to have the students demonstrate their understanding of potential and kinetic energy. I am not sure why they needed to spend time building rollercoasters to show they could memorize the definitions. After the students recited what characterized the two types of energy, while carefully placing the marble at the top of the tube and watching it roll down into a jar, I asked them “why do you need to know this?” Not one was able to provide an answer about why or how it would be useful in their lives.

So what was the point of that whole thing?

There are other ways to teach about potential and kinetic energy. What if the students had to build a contraption to solve a real world problem, one that required different forces and movements to operate? What if learning about energy was picked up along the way, when the learning is needed (just in time), during critical parts of the construction of the contraption that has an authentic purpose? I bet the students would have been able to explain why they were learning about energy and how it was relevant (at least for the challenge) if they needed to apply the concepts while making it part of a greater whole.

The problem starts when schools don’t have a shared understanding of what learning is. This conversation doesn’t happen enough within the teacher/leadership circles, much less as a while school, including the students. How many schools can say that everyone is aligned on what learning means, what it looks like, how it is demonstrated and evidenced? If the adults don’t come together, how can the students find their ways? The vision so often put forth of developing life-long learners becomes impossible if the latter can’t define what learning is.

This means that the conversation we are having in our schools needs to bring the students in. We will not meet the needs of today (even less 2030) if students themselves don’t understand that learning is not measured by a test score. Until they see school as a place where they can explore their curiosities and develop in intrinsic drive for learning, they will play the game of school and do what they have to do to get the grade. This is part of a more complex conversation about why we are bound to behaviors that go against common sense, because of the obsession to get into “the best” universities.

Students understand why they’re learning something when they see how it is relevant to their lives. Piaget wrote that learning happens through active engagement (that is, not passively receiving), when new information is assimilated and applied to a new context (discovery), through a process of accommodation. Simply put, when you take in something new, you are learning if your behaviors within a new context are changed as a result. If you can’t apply what you have taken in, it’s not learning, it’s memorization at best.

The key for learning is to have students engage with the material in ways that are active and meaningful, so that they can see the relevance in their lives. Without this understanding, there will never be deeper learning, which Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine see as the confluence of mastery, identity, and creation. Challenges offer the opportunity for relevance, particularly if they are chosen by the students. Mastery of skills and content develops through the challenges. Identity forms when the students believe in what they’re doing. Creativity flows when students are allowed the freedom to find their own solutions, pushed by understanding the purpose of their efforts.

(Again, active and meaningful use come from the student’s point of view, not the teacher’s. Again, we should stay clear of what not Jennifer Gonzalez calls a Grecian Urn, that is, an activity that has little real educational value in relation to time spent for completion. This isn’t the regurgitation of content in another form. Active and meaningful use should open the doors for deeper learning.)

If learning happens when experiences within one context lead to changes in behavior in another, then anything introduced needs to be practiced, applied, and experienced in ways that allow for the learning to solidify and be transferrable. It then has a chance to become deeper learning through mastery, identity, and creation. Unless the material is relevant and transferrable, the student will not understand why she’s learning it. She will be motivated by extrinsic forces, such as a test or some kind of requirement. It certainly won’t be meaningful and I could argue it’s not even learning.

If the teacher cannot point to how students will apply what we’re teaching them, then maybe the material is not worth teaching. If the student cannot explain how the material is relevant, then maybe we should re-consider whether we should be teaching the material or how it is we have connected to the student’s world.

I am 46 years old and I cannot remember the different parts of a cell. I needed to know at one point and took a test on the cell, but then I turned in the exam and that was that.

I have an advanced degree in History and will never know everything about history. I struggle to remember the details of my dissertation. What I think I can do, however, is approach almost any topic in Social Sciences that is new to me and begin to ask the right questions to make the right connections (or have more sophisticated questions as I unravel the material). It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with the experiences you have had. Learning only exists when there is transference from one experience to the next. Relevance only happens when the students see how the transfer will take place within the contexts of their realities*.

Why do we persist in “teaching” kids stuff that we think is important, irrespective of their interests, hopes, curiosities, and desires? This is not teaching, it is a dance we do. In the meantime, kids tune out and learn more outside the classroom that inside. They tune out because they don’t see relevance. They cannot explain why they’re “learning” something.

Let’s co-design curriculum with kids! Let’s rid ourselves of the idea that there is a tradeoff between challenge-based learning that has open-ended outcomes and literacy/numeracy skills. Let’s use Just In Time learning to teach these skills when they’re needed, so provide a reason to use them, to have the stick, and to get rid of all those parts of the curriculum that are superfluous. When students have a reason to write, they will improve their writing. When they have a reason to apply math, they will retain and be able to transfer the skills. We can still evidence progress and map skills to standards (not age-specific but developmental)—there is no tradeoff between Just In Time learning and the development of literacy and numeracy skills, on the contrary!

We need to check ourselves every time we teach something: Do the students know why they’re learning something and understand how it relates to their lives, now or in the close future? If they don’t know, we have to re-think what went wrong: content, delivery, connections… whatever it is, addressing this question is necessary to take the first step toward deeper learning.

*Relevance need to be real, not imagined. A student once told me they needed to know the different parts of the brain so that if they every got a brain tumor, they could understand what the doctor was telling them. I am not discounting the importance of knowledge, but following this logic we need to be walking encyclopedias. I have the internet to lift this burden off my shoulders.

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