Learning Philosophy

Two memories of my own learning stand out.  These memories are stark, not because I am currently thinking about learning, or a teacher trying to improve.  No, instead, these are life memories that have remained vivid since they happened, despite my current circumstances.

The first was the day before my High School Chemistry final.  I was the student who never studied anything, ever, and got good but not great grades.  Your A minus slacker.  Chemistry was a challenge in that I wasn’t easily absorbing the information and skills as I normally did and the fuzziness was only increasing.  So, the day before the test, I did the unthinkable – I pulled out my textbook and opened it to Chapter 1.  I spent hours that evening on Chemistry – more Chemistry work than I had done all year in one evening.  I enjoyed every moment, because things began clicking into place.  I did random problems at the end of each Chapter until I felt comfortable that I had mastered that concept and then moved straight on to the next.  Long story short, I went from a probable low C to the highest performing Junior – after of course the teacher called me up to his desk and made me verbally answer a few of the questions to validate that I hadn’t cheated!  But then he wrote down the top scores, best to worst, and the gasp from my friends when my name went up before theirs – I hear it to this day. “Joe?” said the future valedictorian.

The second was in my adult, early corporate years.  Industry was transforming to accommodate and implement computers and computerization.  I was an ambitious intern, familiar with computer programming, but in no way did I consider myself to be a computer programmer.  I was working on my MBA in Marketing.  However, at a previous internship I had seen an Excel spreadsheet that had made use of a macro and I had thought, “Huh.  Excel can do macros.”  Because I am that smart.  However, at the new company, I saw that they were printing out hundreds or pages of a text document as their price list to the distributors, who then took that list and created their own price to charge the customer.  Casual conversations with salespeople informed me that the General Managers of the Distributors would page through these and pound the numbers into a calculator (the kind that printed out receipts) to figure out their selling price to get their required margin.  Well, that’s a waste of time, I thought.  Excel would add them all up automatically.  “I want 1 of these, 2 of those etc etc.”  So I threw that idea out there.

            I happened to be in the crazy position of being paid as an intern there without much to do, so I began exploring how I would improve this.  And I remembered that Excel had macros.  Huh.  So, I thought, maybe, rather than just being a calculator, we could have a page for each product, and then take all the products that were chosen and put them into a new page, that they could then print out and hand to the customer.

            That’s when I found out that, yeah, Excel had macros, but oh boy, Excel had Visual Basic.  A whole computer language that would let me do literally everything I could think of that needed to be done.  I just needed to learn how Visual Basic for Excel was different than the Basic I’d learned in High School (on a Commodore PET computer.)  So I dove into learning how to program using Visual Basic.  Long story short, the pricing program I developed was used by hundreds of people for almost fifteen years at a Fortune 500 company saving at least 20 million dollars in labor costs.

            What did those two events have in common?  First, there was an outside prompt.  The test and the current price list.  Second, there was an awareness that things could be improved – my fuzziness on Chemistry assignments to that point and the knowledge that Excel had macros and could do the basic addition and subtraction necessary.  Third, there was self-motivation to make these improvements happen.  Forth, there was an honest joy in overcoming the obstacles – how to do Stoichiometry, how to program Excel to take the prices for each and move them to a Quote to be printed.  Each obstacle overcome led to more joy and more motivation to tackle the next. 

            Now, after the videos of this unit, it was tempting to close the above with, “Fifth, there was a purpose…”  But, in thinking about it, the only purpose really was my motivation.  In High School I felt I needed to get better if I wanted to do well, which motivated me to study.  At work, it was more the motivation to improve something, than some higher purpose.  I could stretch the definition of Purpose to fit, but, to me, Motivation seems internally focused while Purpose seems external.  A purpose is to make something outside of you better.  In both of these cases though, my drive to learn fit much more with the Mastery category described in the motivation video.

            Admittedly, as the full scope of the project became apparent, a “purpose” developed, which was to use this to get promoted to a more interesting job where I had real work to do each day!  But that was really an ancillary benefit.  That never happened.  Go figure.

            With this experience my learning philosophy again is summed up with:  “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” but with all the additional caveats as explained in Culture of Learning discussion that make this an inspirational and not defeatist motto.  In each case, I drank on my own – but I had been put in a position to do so when I was ready to.

            I don’t think that the person who put a red button on a simple Excel-based survey ever will realize how that simple window of potential led to a world of difference.  Teachers, also, won’t know what little thing that they give no thought to could spark and inspire their students.  Or when!  A full year had passed without me thinking of the macro, but when it was needed, I knew of its existence.  The teacher had given me Chemistry work to do all year, which certainly helped with the speed at which I acquired mastery that night before, but I am sure he had despaired of its effectiveness with me till then.

            Despite rejecting Purpose in my own situation, the video over the research on Motivation rings true with me.  My life choices are in alignment with that described by the video – yet I had viewed myself as the outlier who rejected high-paid corporate jobs for the emotional satisfaction of helping poor to middle-class kids achieve their dreams.  I believe the science (says the Chemistry teacher) on motivation and it matches my own data.

            So how to use this knowledge to be more effective in achieving the satisfaction of helping kids learn? 

            I do believe that Purpose is needed.  The students have told me so.  “Mr. Mullany, when am I ever going to use this stuff again in my life?”  That’s a rejection of purpose, and without resolving this, you will have a student who does the minimum (often only after a lot of stress) and doesn’t learn, and both of you are happy when they move on, because neither of you succeeded.

            I deliberately used Purpose here.  Because, as I said, Purpose is external.  I am external to this student.  Purpose is something I can, to some extent, have influence over.  But if I succeed with the Purpose, then I believe the student will then be Motivated. 

Yesterday, I did some research to find a quote, but was unsuccessful.  Perhaps I have, over the years, bastardized the real Shakespeare quote of “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, I had thought there was a quote around those lines to the effect that “each of us is only a bit player in another person’s epic.”  Meaning that for all that I have my motivations, history, skills and talents, all that appears to the audience in another’s life story is what I present to them, on stage, in a brief cameo in their lives.  I am not the hero in their story, they are.  Therefore, they will act as if they are the hero, and if I am to move them, I must convince them to move.

Of course, it is easier to move someone in a direction they already want to go.  This is why students with college ambitions are easier to teach to standards.  College is the goal, with career a vague certainty once they graduate there.  However, learning to think can escape them if they are merely skilled at compliance, and this does not prepare them for the rigors of college and life thereafter.

The teacher needs to therefore discover as much as they can about the student that their goals, and work to align the standards to them.  Which is a convoluted way of stating the term Authentic Learning.  As with me, the students, if they see how the work will move them towards their goals, will be motivated (to varying extents) to complete the work and to grow from it. 

With this in mind, I need to plan in ways to formally acquire and record the goals of each of my students.  Then I need to think about those goals to see how best my instruction can help them to achieve those goals.  This needs to be done early, and followed up on soon thereafter, to let the students know that this class will be different, and to invest a little more into it than maybe they had previously planned.

I don’t know yet what this will be in any way, shape, or form.

However, this does tie in with my Innovation Proposal, to let students learn at different speeds.  Delinking the students from each other opens the doors to unique assignments.  Who says that all students have to do the same project?  Or that all students have to do “A project.”  Maybe these students like math and will do the worksheets but those students do some minor experiment, and each gets put into the same grading assignment despite this difference.  I have a powerful potential ally in this scheme though.  The student.  I don’t have to always be the one to say, “Do this.”  I could ask them, “What would you like to do here…?” and see what they come up with.  It’s worth a try, and so I will try it next year.

Finally, I don’t think this needs to be done every time.  Just frequently.  Students know there are rules set in place far above my pay grade.  If I work with them, they will work with me.

This broad, sloppy mess is my learning philosophy which will drive my lesson design as I sit down this summer to prepare for next year.