Debate Magazine

How People Learn

By Stevemiranda

I attended a TEDx event today. Two things really struck me.

The first was a notion put forward by a remarkable speaker named August de los Reyes, who graduated from Harvard, worked at Microsoft, and now is faculty at UW in design. I’m paraphrasing from memory since I didn’t take notes, but he said something like this: a major problem, largely unacknowledged, in our schools is that we assume that content delivered by teachers is received in the same way by students. This simply isn’t true.

The talks from this conference will be available online in three weeks; I’ll double check then to make sure I got his statement right. But I’ve been thinking about this all day. Information received by students is entirely dependent upon the context in which they receive it: their relationship with the teacher, their unique personalities, their particular hopes and dreams, their prior knowledge, their aptitude for the academic discipline, their previous experience—successes and failures—with this academic discipline, whether or not they ate breakfast or got any sleep the previous night. There are countless environmental factors that impact the learning process.

The traditional way of viewing school is to focus on the delivery of academic content from teacher to student. This is important. But it’s not nearly as important as the environmental factors that influence how that content is received.

* * *

The second thing that struck me was the fact that during the talks, maybe a third of the audience was pecking away on their laptops, iPads, or Blackberrys. The speakers didn’t seem to mind, and not only was this not considered rude, it was encouraged! In fact, there was a big screen in the lobby displaying the Twitter feed of everyone who writing about the conference.

I’m not saying it’s right, or that it’s a good thing, or that I necessarily approve of it. But it’s real. It’s here. The era when we can expect people to sit passively and accept what’s given to them is coming to an end. I suspect that more and more, if a learning experience has no interactive component—if there is no way for the audience or the student to participate as well—it will not connect with its audience.

The theme of this conference was “How People Learn.” Even if I hadn’t listened to a word of what was said, my takeaway from today’s event would have been this: people learn by getting together around shared interests, sharing information about something they’re passionate about, and connecting with others about what they learned. If schools expect to be relevant to kids, they’d better figure this out.

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