Why Icarus Died Part 2: 5 More Secrets To Learning Anything
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of this Secrets To Learning series, in which I discussed Movement, Sleep, Creating Specific Objectives, Choosing the Right Learning Method, and Smart Practice. (If you haven't read it yet or just stumbled upon this page here it is.)
And now... Part Deux.
Daedalus was a bad teacher, but this was not the only reason Icarus died. His demise resulted from the lack of appreciation for the fact that learning is up to him, not pops. Oh well...
Did Icarus think he knew everything there is to know about flight, but learned the contrary is true thanks to sun's infrared radiation and gravity?
Though it seems like a no-brainer that the whole idea of going to school is to learn, I see students beat themselves up all the time when they don't know the stuff I'm about to teach them before I teach it. I catch myself doing it as well. I bet you sometimes do it too. We feel inadequate, in situations in which we should allow ourselves to accept we don't know something, relax, and listen with an open mind so we can learn.
The real problem happens when we try to mask it; hide it somehow. It prevents us from engaging and asking questions. What's worse, such behavior slows down, even stops learning.
Negative attitude toward learning something is another way we sabotage it. If a student keeps saying he hates math, he will authentically hate it soon enough. This will prevent him from learning in two ways. One, as he is constantly sending messages to his brain that math sucks, his mind places math really low on the list of survival priorities, because it identifies math with pain every time the very topic comes up. Two, he will completely disengage, or engage in classroom learning only partially and strictly because he has to.
So allow yourself to not be an expert all the time. Model this for students. Be open to learning from them and everyone else and show this willingness. Seeing you take risks, your students will be more inclined to take risks, ask questions, and allow themselves to be wrong. So practice being like a small child; endlessly and obsessively curious, free of the curse of expectation to know something before she learns it, and unconcerned with how others perceive her lack of knowledge on a subject.
Space It Out
Daedalus: Hey Icarus, make sure you flap hard to stay airborne and don't get too close to the sun.
Icarus: Okay dad.
Short time after the lesson, Icarus died as a result of flying too close to the sun.
I know at least a couple of math classes in my school this happens in. The teacher spends the entire class period getting through the new concept and then assigns 50 problems for homework. They saw it, so they should know it right? Now it's time to practice! Quiz on Friday!
Information needs to sit in the brain and be recalled several times for it to stick. But it isn't just about long term memory. For the hard stuff to sink in, the brain must alternate between the focused and the relaxed (diffuse) mode. It needs smart spaced out practice and breaks for neural connections to become stronger and to form additional neural connections that lead to the formation of meaning. Every learner's reference point is different and she must be given time to find it.
What if the math teacher let her students figure the concept out as they work through the problems in class? She could circulate and help teams of students with hints and guidance. Later, they could do a problem or two at home having a better idea of what to do. Next day, they could warm up with a similar problem and ask clarification questions. Then, they could solve a few more problems. This might have to be repeated using students who caught on to teach those who need help.
Ultimately, they might actually be able to fly on their own when it is time to review and assess. It's weird how we're conditioned to focus on getting through the curriculum. What's the point if students ain't learnin'? Bro? Sis?
Focus On The Process Not The Outcome
Icarus was so excited about his first flight, he forgot to focus on flying right. The consequences were dire.
It goes without saying that all educators must love learning and foster the same love in their students. One way is to be excited about teaching and learning with students, because someone once said that enthusiasm is contagious. I agree. Another way is to always emphasize the importance of learning. Not grades. Learning. This is often comparable to swimming upstream, because the system is rigged to focus on grades and scores. GPA, ACT and SAT, honor roll, national honor society, Yep, no one is asking what your kid learned, but if you have a straight A student sticker on your bumper, you're the best parent since Prince William and Kate Middleton!
This is why you need to emphasize learning with students all the time. It's not easy, but they must be given the chance to develop a new perspective. You can help them by telling stories of people like Richard Branson or Anthony Hopkins, who were horrible at school, but because the chose lifelong learning they became successful. I always tell my students that no one will give a doo doo about what they got in chemistry when they're off changing the world.
One more thing. You don't need to keep looking at the top when climbing a mountain. Just focus on going in the right direction and not tripping. When projects and goals overwhelm, teach your students to chunk and focus on getting each small part done one by one. You can design project based learning this way. It's not a special ed strategy. It's a life strategy.
"Holy crap I'm flying like a bird!" said Icarus before falling down like a stone. The rest is mythology.
Ask yourself: Do my students know how to prioritize what they are learning? and Do they know what skills to emphasize and which abilities to focus on first, so that whatever comes next is easier, or at least learning it is less frustrating? You know a lot more about the subject you're teaching and the process of learning than the students you teach. It's easy to assume they should know what comes first, second, and third. This knowing and assuming is called the curse of knowledge and happens to professionals all the time. But here's the facts:
- Your students often don't know which information to prioritize and how to prioritize it.
- Prioritization is a skill that must be developed and you can help your students build it.
So model it. Explain why understanding division, makes doing fractions easier. I still remember the Russian soon to be 9th grade algebra teacher Margaret repeatedly bringing up this question when we discussed things completely unrelated in our teacher prep cohort in Chicago: But will I have to teach fractions? Some 30 of us kept ignoring her, until a couple weeks in when Earick and I finally exclaimed in unison: Yes, you'll have to teach fractions Margaret! I was a newb, so I didn't know it then, but I know now that many high school students don't understand what happens when we divide stuff and are thus unable to understand fractions. Skill deficiency is a common problem across subjects and grade levels. Prioritize and teach the shit out of skills.
Because multitasking sucks, just ask Icarus.
It's hard to say what you don't already know in and out here, so let me just mention pomodoro. Pomodoro is a 25 minute chunk of time that can be used to do deep focused work. All you do is have a specific task or goal in mind, set the timer to 25 minutes, get rid of all the distractions, and focus on that one task alone till the timer sounds. Then, you take a break. You can do a series of pomodoros with breaks as needed. It works! Grab this Free Infographic on Procrastination for a more detailed description of pomodoro.
Teach pomodoro. Practice it in class. Remember that it can be adjusted to fit the ages and needs of your students. 10 minutes of focused work is way better than 20 minutes of going back and forth between several different tasks. So explain the strategy to your kids, set the timer to [Insert Number] minutes, and go to town! Review, repeat, and encourage students use it at home when studying or working on a project.
Icarus is dead. But this young promising man back then, could have been saved if he knew how to learn. Education today, can be saved if we teach students how to learn and acquire skills. Unfortunately, Icarus’ father only told him what he needed him to know. Daedalus did not help his son learn. He merely told Icarus what to do and what not to do. It sounds eerily familiar...
This, I'm afraid, is the curse of education today. There's too much focus on what, not enough on how. We push common core and curriculum, dragging our students through state standards and assessments. We jam pack class time with concepts and just tell our students how to learn them. As little time is left in class for practicing how to actually learn, students are often on their own trying to figure out how to learn what we ask them to learn. Few in education are calling for decreasing the amount of stuff we teach and increasing the amount of time we spend helping our students become better learners. And when it comes to governmental guidance of education, the lunatics are running the loony bin these days... But Betsy is not the problem.
We don't need her.
The truth comes with great responsibility, but if we think on it, we realize this has always been the case. It is up to us, the teachers and the administrators, to teach our students to fly and to stay aerial. We need to focus on teaching our students how to learn by spending class time on solving problems they care about, not feeding them a shitload of information and trying to squeeze in some standardized test practice every Friday.
I suppose teaching has become a secretive profession. We teach stuff, but hide the how by not being explicit about it. I teach high school and am convinced most students don't know how to learn effectively. Many get good grades, but if learning is about retention... Well, it's just not happening. Honestly, I'm not even convinced it needs to happen. What I am convinced of, is that each student who leaves our schools needs to have the skills necessary to succeed. They need to know how to understand and learn new information efficiently and effectively. Napoleon? Not so much...
Icarus couldn't be saved, because his father was a great innovator, but a bad teacher. It's time we choose the former and fix the latter.
You have the power to change the world. Use it often.
P.S. Please don't keep these secrets to yourself. Teach them! Teach one or two every day. Reiterate one or two every day. Allow your students to intentionally practice them every day. When you discover new ones, share them! If you need an aid, check out my book "Crush School: Every Student's Guide To Killing It In The Classroom." My newest book "The Power Of Three: Simplify. Start. Succeed." shows you how to use learning principles to improve your life as well.