I have been repeating this mantra for more than 20 years, and the more I learn, the truer it becomes. It makes me think about bridge beams, and the interconnectedness of their strength. Pieces of steel that directly support one thing also help support many others. In recent weeks I’ve been reviewing principles for building curriculum supportive of creativity. This next principle feels a bit like bridge beams. It says, in curriculum supportive of creativity:
The tasks students undertake to apply curriculum are tied to the real world in complex ways, asking genuine questions and solving real world problems.
All good lessons involve practice. Whatever the key ideas we are teaching, students must practice them to reinforce their learning. The question is, how? When we ask students to apply content in new ways, it requires them to think about the ideas more flexibly. Learning about the volume of solids as a geometrical formula and then completing a set of calculations is one thing. Considering how best to design a container to hold a particular volume of popcorn is another. Learning the difference between a simile and a metaphor is standard Language Arts content. But developing metaphors that could be used to justify a new school mascot makes the concept of metaphor meaningful beyond the textbook. Students in both cases have the opportunity to use flexible thinking and develop original ideas. But what about learning?
It makes sense, of course, that thinking about something in more than one way builds more connections, and thus better learning, but it goes way beyond that. One of the most interesting books I’ve read in the last year is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s Emotions, Learning, and the Brain. A former teacher turned neuroscientist (and how often do we see that?), she is able to offer a unique perspective on what some of the latest findings in neuroscience mean for teaching and learning. At the heart of the book is the complex relationship between learning and emotions.
[E]motion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. . . .Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. (p. 18)
You probably should read that again, because this is vital. We only think (deeply) about things we care about. Unless students care about the things they are learning, they won’t think about them. If they don’t think about them, they won’t learn them, not really. They may be able to repeat facts for a test, but they won’t remember them, transfer them to another situation, or use them in useful ways. Hardly seems as if that should qualify as “learning” at all, regardless of the test score.
How do we help students care about content? Not by giving out stickers or snacks. Those may generate emotions, but not about ideas. While the science—to say nothing of the applications of the science—is just beginning, we can say that activities that help students see content as meaningful in their lives—not just interesting, but also useful—is a start. Open-ended problems can be particularly useful, because they allow students to wrestle with defining the task and find ways to tie to their own interests and creativity. Those projects that might, at the surface feel much less efficient than a traditional test or straightforward “report,” may in the end be the route to the learning we all want. And creativity, too!
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning, and the brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.