When I began as a teacher, I thought that teaching was about having good ideas and convincing people of the goodness of those ideas. First, let me apologize once again to those poor students who had me as a teacher in those first couple of years. I wasn’t any worse than any of the peers who worked alongside me, but I had a lot to learn, and being no worse than the average isn’t what learners needed. In the time since, experience has taught me that learning is a whole lot more complex than giving someone an idea. I've seen folks get angry and bitter about that reality when the world doesn't understand the ideas they offer; but I choose to understand it as part of the human condition. In truth, we don't learn from ideas as much as we learn from necessity and circumstances. When I realized that as a teacher, I also realized the importance of three critical requisites for leaning to happen. These three are:
Establishing learning environments where people were engaged in solving real problems that mattered to them.
Building a tripartite relationship among the idea, the teacher, and learners.
Sequencing so that people begin engagement where they understand and continue through an engagement that keeps them stretching their knowledge.
The pandemic is the perfect exemplar of how all this works.
To explain: For 30 years, I’ve been pushing the idea that technology-mediated learning has benefits. I came to that awareness through my experiences as a teacher and through primary research I’ve done to measure the impacts of technology-mediated learning. I began using computers in my teaching in 1984 and evolved a set of activities that took advantage of technology-mediated learning from that point forward. In my scholarship, I’m second author on what I believe to be the first, published controlled study that measured the effects of the Internet in K-12 classrooms in 1997. If having a good idea and being able to explain it were enough, I would’ve successfully convinced educators to develop technology-mediated learning years ago. People tell me that I’m pretty competent at explaining things.
However, despite my interest, knowledge and experience, the response from most colleagues and educational systems to my insistence that technology can aid instruction has ranged from tepid to hostile. When I was hired for what turned out to be the last university position where I worked for 10 years before retiring, I asked what the interest was in distance or hybrid learning. Each person I asked, without exception, said that the institution had a long history of education that didn’t include any kind of distance-based learning. No one was interested. I took the job anyway because I figured that there were other reasons to work there – most significantly because it was one of only four professor positions that focused on adult education in my state.
For years in that position, I worked with other organizations to develop online and hybrid learning. I also created some workshops and certificates that were organized or delivered through video conferencing, course management systems, and other technologies. Educators in those sessions were always, at first, hesitant to participate. With time, though, they found that the flexibility of participation when they could join sessions from wherever they were made up for any physical separation. Also, we ensured that lessons were organized to be active learning environments that paralleled, and in some instances, exceeded the capacity of face-to-face instruction. We also ensured that there were lots of opportunities for personal relationship building. As a result, these were all successful at attracting and engaging learners. Still, though, the response of the institution and colleagues where I worked was to minimize any benefits in favor of what they were comfortable doing. Actually, that reaction was common among many people in education. The response was something like, “That’s just not what we do.”
Until the pandemic. When states forced education institutions to close their doors because of the pandemic, schools had to find ways to deliver instruction to students at a distance. They suddenly needed to learn to use technologies they hadn’t previously considered. From the educators I talked to in kindergarten through graduate schools and from Seattle to Riyadh, teachers needed to develop systems and skills that would rapidly replace face-to-face instruction. Teachers and systems scrambled to build distanced-based instruction. As I noted in March, 2020, that’s no easy task. However, since that challenging beginning, educators learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Their efforts were sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful, but educators I encountered began looking at technologically mediated models differently. That extended into personal lives and professional meetings as video conferencing and webcasting often became the only choice when considering connections to others. Instead of “that’s not what we do,” people began to understand, “this is now how we can connect”; and, even more importantly, many educators began to see the potential benefits of how these technologies can positively impact their work.
During the past 18 months, I helped to evaluate a statewide professional development project for K-12 teachers in 140 teams around Washington state. The project was conceived as a traditional professional development project, but it began just as the state enforced pandemic rules. The project designers made rapid changes and adapted. The year-end evaluation of the project this year had some surprising outcomes. One of them is the lack of complaints from educators about having to adjust to online education. Some of the teams even identified positive benefits. They attributed much of that to the project coordinators who provided distance-based, customized supports to the teams and developed the relationships needed to create that customization. The technologies used (video conferencing, online modules, and a course management system) supported those targeted customizations. Because the project’s content focused on helping these educators address a real need, it engaged them and helped them to learn and begin applying new ideas. By all measures, the project worked well to meet its aims.
Don’t miss the point, here. My point isn’t that technology is better, or that the pandemic had positive benefits, or that I was ahead of or behind anyone. The point is an answer to the question asked by this essay’s title: “How do we learn?” We learn from necessity and circumstances that are based in our real needs. We learn by developing that tripartite relationship among the instructor, the learner, and the content. We learn through a sequencing of experiences that takes us from what we know to what we need to know. During the pandemic, educators, as evidenced by the project I mentioned above where we evaluated their experiences, seem to be discovering new ideas that they would’ve otherwise dismissed. It’s these factors that create the moment in which we can learn.
This lesson on how we learn seems to be a lesson worth keeping, and it offers opportunity for us to examine what we think learning and teaching should be. Rather than seeing education as simply the transmission of ideas, maybe we should think of it as the engagement with ideas. The adaptations that global education systems made during the pandemic should help us realize the importance of that engagement, the importance of ensuring that learning and teaching are about more than relaying information. How do we learn? We learn, as education systems did over the past 18 months, by solving problems, addressing needs that are real to us, and by connecting to those ideas that solve our problems. If that’s how we learn, then school and schooling should look differently.
This challenges much about what we think of education. If we learn through personal engagement with ideas that address our needs, then how we measure learning should focus on that engagement as much as the knowledge and skills. If that tripartite relationship among teacher, subject, and student is critical, then we need to prepare teachers to create and maintain that relationship – and what we define as “good teaching” should be based on teachers’ abilities to do so. If creating opportunities for sequenced, relevant and meaningful learning is important, then educational systems need to emphasize that as much as they emphasize the knowledge which should be an outcome of that.
Given I believe this, I don’t expect that the educational system will change itself after a few people read this essay. After all, what’s here are more abstract ideas that I argue above don’t lead to learning. However, abstract ideas can have a place in helping people to wonder what might be possible. I hope this is a spark to think back on our own learning over the past 18 months and to see if the ideas here resonate with those experiences. If you do see a resonance, then perhaps you’ll start an exploration within your sphere of influence, as a community member, as a parent, as a teacher, as a leader to discover how the ways in which you learn can be applied to the places where you, your children, and your community are educated.
 Follansbee, S., Hughes, B. ,Pisha, B, & Stahl, S. (1997). Can online communications improve student performance? ERS Spectrum Journal of Research and Information,15(1), 15-26