Saturday, October 16, 2010

License to Learn

CC image on Flickr by Jaimito Cartero

The majority of students that I teach are going through a significant transformation in life: they're learning to drive.  Most of us can remember what a momentous shift it was moving from the passenger's seat into the driver's.  Some embrace the experience with great enthusiasm, while others are apprehensive and uncertain.  Many display a combination of all three.

The significance of this transition occurred to me recently when one of my students completed her in-class, inquiry-based assignment "early" and expressed boredom while sitting at her Web-connected computer, waiting for her classmates to catch up.  "Really?" I wondered.  Really.  I knew it was time to have a talk.

It occurred to me that this brilliant student is beyond capable of sustained inquiry.  She possess the aptitude and skills to unearth a myriad of answers, evidence, causes, illustrative examples, and derivative questions.  Yet, as a product of an "obey the authority and follow along" schooling model, she was accustomed to doing exactly as asked and then waiting for her next order.  In short, she was used to being a passenger, not a driver.

All that she lacked, I discovered, was permission for pursuit-- in essence, a license to learn.  I decided I could not meet with her again soon enough to begin helping her to understand that no matter what the assigned task, her learning need not have limits.  You may dig deeper.  You may look further.  Don't worry about where your peers are with this task.  Go as far as you can go.

Of course this incident also gave me pause to reflect on the questions I pose to my students.  How conducive to exploration are they?  How relevant and engaging are my learners likely to find them?  I feel I can always do better.

I am a huge history buff and for years have pored over the correspondence between the exquisitely expressive John and Abigail Adams.  One sentiment expressed by Mrs. Adams to her husband as the North American colonies faced a new possible reality of independence from their sovereign ruler read as follows:

"You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive spectator."
~ Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 October 1774

Mrs. Adams was expressing her belief in the great potential of her husband's mind and her desire to see that mind in action.  Were I half as eloquent as Abigail, I would say the same thing to that "bored" student -- and to all of my students.  You ought not be inactive spectators in the classroom but rather active participants in pursuit of learning.  Know that you not only have my permission but my utmost support to seek, explore, push, challenge, connect, create, and share.  In past classes, worksheets may have had a final question, but your capacity for perpetual inquiry does not.

I know that one conversation with a student or class will not undo years of conditioning, but I hope that my dialogue, example, motivation, and influence will ignite a hunger for learning based on my student's passions.  I hope that with time I can extinguish any inclination for a computer-wielding student to say, "I'm done.  Now what?"  I want each one of my learners to know that they have a license to seek answers and questions as far as their mind will take them.

With this matter in mind, serendipitously, I tuned into the recent footage of the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners and dug up a t-shirt I bought during the semester that I lived in Santiago in the late 90s.

There it is, a message complementing the words of Mrs. Adams that I want to share with my kids.
I am right here with you.  Together, we will identify targeted destinations, and I will help you with suggested routes, tips, and fuel, but you are now in the driver's seat.  Buckle up, and go as far as you can go.

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