For quite some time now, Will Richardson has been saying that teachers need to use blogs, wikis, and podcasts before implementing them in their own classrooms. As a teacher, I couldn’t agree more and have spent at least the past half decade trying to live up to Richardson’s expectations. I’ve started blogs, Nings, Twitter accounts, social networks. I’ve joined, signed up for, played with, and filled out profiles on websites for these and numerous other new “cool tools” … only to have all of that initial enthusiasm gradually fade or be replaced by some other newest, coolest tool. But it was only when I heard Richardson recast the concept slightly — saying he was more interested in his children’s teachers being “master learners” than “master teachers“ — that everything really clicked for me.
Since then (and note that my hearing this was not the first time Richardson framed the problem as such), I have begun my English education and technology courses with Richardson’s driving question of late: what does it mean to be a master learner? As future teachers and longtime students, the preservice teachers in my classrooms should have no problem reflecting on this question, right? (You guessed it) WRONG.
Students in my classes are typically “good students”: most have done well academically all their lives and view their GPAs as evidence that they are among the top 25% of learners. So, duh, they know how to learn. Can we move on, please? I have yet to figure out whether it’s just teachers and teachers to-be or most students today, but it is clear that my students’ impatience with this concept indicates that they have a very different definition of learning than I.
And as a teacher educator who is well-versed in theories of learning, I just cannot accept their definition. To me, learning something is understanding it (as Jay Wiggins and Grant McTighe would have it): to be able to use or apply new knowledge in a different context, or what we education eggheads like to call “learning for transfer.” Doing the reading and taking a quiz about it do little to build transferrable understandings. My students readily admit that school thus far has done little to prepare them to do that.
There are many reasons why new media should be integrated into teacher education classrooms (it enhances teaching and learning, supports multiple literacies, and in the ELA classroom expands our understanding of literacy beyond print text), but one very good reason is that it transforms the classroom into a laboratory where students (preservice teachers) are re-learning how to learn. To take chances, explore and discover, even to fail and learn from those mistakes. They are re-learning how to solve problems on their own (a 21st-century skill), and in the process, reconnecting with what it means to be a learner, not just someone who knows how to “do school” well. They are learning to be patient with themselves as learners and for some it is not so easy. But, as I always say to them, what kind of model of learning are you providing for your students? For your students who don’t walk into your classroom with the “doing school” toolkit in their bookbags? And how are you helping those students who can “do school” unschool themselves and begin to take charge of their own educational pathways (which new media allows)?
When I first enrolled in ds106 a year ago, my eyes were opened to my students’ experiences in a new way as I fumbled along publicly, like a amateur (and still very much so), configuring widgets, trying and failing to get my blog up and running, and learning to write real blog posts. This semester, I have my students engaged in a similar enterprise: as part of our ENG 307: New Media Literacies and the ELA Classroom course, we are collaborating in Jim Groom’s ds106 course with at least 5 different linked classrooms from around the world. My students and I are spending the semester exploring Richardson’s ideas about why it it is so difficult for teachers (and teachers-to-be) to be “master learners.” The journey has just begun, but already some very interesting responses are emerging. Check them out on our Ning and two student posts so far (here’s the other one).