Thinking about Learning (again…)

Been away for a while for a number of reasons. 

I just read an article on the really got me thinking about what learning looks like and, therefore, what teaching means in this context. Read a great quote sometime ago that basically said teaching does not exist unless learning has happened. This is quite a challenge for us, obviously.

I shared the article with our AP Psch teacher and he said it was a valuable read and that he would share it in the future with his students. I think it’s worth a read, but if you don’t want to follow the link the article discusses a famous memory study subject who suffered damage to his hippocampus. This caused amnesia to set in but over the course of his life he was still able to form new memories of a certain sort. Here, I think is the interesting quote

After the motorcycle accident, K.C. lost most of his past memories and could make almost no new memories. But a neuroscientist named Endel Tulving began studying K.C., and he determined that K.C. could remember certain things from his past life just fine. Oddly, though, everything K.C. remembered fell within one restricted category: It was all stuff you could look up in reference books, like the difference between stalactites and stalagmites or between spares and strikes in bowling. Tulving called these bare facts “semantic memories,” memories devoid of all context and emotion.


I immediately thought of my AP Stats students who are always asked to report conclusions in context, but I also thought of my Calculus students. Both of these groups of students have a deep reserve of the qualities that usually mark a student as a good student. However, too often I have conversations where it is clear that much of what they have displayed as learning in many classes might not go much beyond the sort of semantic memories referred to in the pull out quote. Skill such as setting a derivative equal to zero when solving optimization problems, or running a two sample t test rather than a z test are often reduced simply to factual memory with no conceptual anchor. In stats when we ask about rejecting or failing to reject a hypothesis based on a reported, or calculated p value, it feels like a particular student should either ALWAYS get this decision right or ALWAYS get it wrong based on a conceptual idea about what the p value says. However, I have seen too many instances where this decision seems to boil down to not much more than a coin toss as the student tries to remember a rule. If the p value has a meaning related to probability, then the answer should be clear and consistent. It feels to me that the biggest challenge in teaching these days is to figure out how to help my students slow down and think. Really think about the ideas that they are working with. Too often they have been rewarded with good grades without reflecting on what they’ve learned and how it applies to anything. This sounds (and kind of feels) like a criticism of my students and my colleagues. I don’t intend it that way. I intend this as a question for me and my colleagues (both in my building and around the world) and my students to consider. How can we construct our classes in a way that helps to develop understanding for our students in a more meaningful, more permanent way? I certainly don’t pretend to know the answers. I know that the way I run my class works for some. It makes other crazy. Two super quick anecdotes, then I’m off to pick up my little girl.

  • This year when I was reading my teacher/course evaluations that the students fill out I ran across a great written remark. One of the questions asks whether the instructor challenges the student to think critically about the subject matter. This student in question marked that he agreed with the statement and then wrote ‘TOO MUCH THINKING’ I hope that this was meant in a good natured way, but I DO know that I wear some of my students out with my questioning. They often ask me to just tell them HOW to solve the problem.
  • Last year when we were wrapping up Calc BC and working in class on review material for the AP test two students were talking. They did not know I was close enough to hear (or they did not care) and one said to the other ‘last year I knew how to solve these but I had no idea why it worked.’

Here’s to the never-ending struggle to make this all meaningful.

Two conversations and a Blog Quote

Okay – so I’m thinking out loud here. Hoping some wisdom comes from this exercise and/or from brilliant comments by my dear readers.


Conversation #1

Working with my outgoing Calc BC group and I comment to one of my students that it’s a tough day for him. He’s on our swim team and they had a 6 AM practice Tuesday morning and a meet that afternoon. One of the other students – a member of our field hockey team – says that her team never ran sprints the day before a big meet. Now, it’s important to understand that our field hockey team has won’t he state championship three of the past four years. This student was a member her whole high school career. I take this opportunity and I ask her if she thinks that this strategy (don’t stress out your body the day before an important match) might be carried over to another realm. I am greeted by a quizzical look and I say ‘Maybe you should not cram the night before a big test.’ Another quizzical look. She asks if I am advocating not studying. I say that the daily diligence of regular work and studying is comparable to daily hard practice in field hockey. Then, relax a bit before an important match (or test) and maybe this is a formula for success. I don’t think that many of my students saw that as a winning strategy.


Conversation #2

I just observed a lovely Precalculus class taught by one of my colleagues. The class was working on a variety of word problems – coins, movie tickets, area/perimeter, etc. My colleague is a remarkably calm, zen-like fellow. He sat in a student chair the whole time (sort of invisible!) and asked one student at a time to come to the board. The rest of the class was attentive, offering help to their colleague and generally being cooperative and positive. The teacher kept asking nudging questions of the student at the board. “What do we want to find here?” “How can we relate the number of coins and the value of the coins?” etc. Being an observer in the class (and not stressing out about HOW to do the problems) I saw that my colleague was modeling for his students a lovely strategy for tackling these problems. If each student could play that conversation back in their head as they struggled with any problem, then they would see much more progress. They might still make mistakes, but they’d have a sound strategy for success. What troubled me – and I spoke with the teacher about it the next morning – is the fact that I KNOW that some of them will not ask themselves those questions. They won’t take his advice for attacking these problems to heart. I am not saying that all of our students need to mimc our behavior. What I am saying is that students who struggle, ought to feel that it is a lifeline that is being offered here. When I asked him about this the next morning, I told him that I was impressed by his careful teaching and modeling. His response was something along the lines of ‘I am a big believer in teaching. I just think it works better when learning happens.’ I really don’t think he was being mean or cynical. 



This morning, I awoke to another terrific blog post by @JustinAion over at his blog Relearning to Teach. If you are not familiar with his work, you should change that and visit him. Pay attention to his tweets as well. Life will be better. He closed out his post today with a powerful quote – “Even with everything I’ve seen, done and learned, even with all of the conversations I’ve had with other teachers, I still only feel as though I’m “teaching” when I’m answering student questions or going over examples.

I wish I could scrub that feeling.”


I think that I’ll walk away from my computer now and let these conversations and this quote marinate a bit. I know I have some questions, but I am not sure that I can ask them accurately enough yet.