A few years ago, I decided I would learn to play the mandolin. Even though in my youth I had adopted the refrain that “I’m not a musical person,” I figured I had changed as an adult. I considered myself a lifelong learner and had chosen a career (education) in which I was constantly learning. I would take this challenge on as I would take on learning about a new subject: I would read books about music theory, watch lessons on YouTube, practice regularly, and so on. This would be easy, I thought.
I began to make some progress on my own, but as soon as I played with friends who had significantly more experience than I had, I couldn’t keep up and began to think that it would be easier to just sit back and watch than risk making mistake after mistake. My long-held assumption that music was an innate talent started to surface, and it was going to take a lot for me to challenge that assumption and want to put in the effort it would take to learn how to play.
Many teachers, like me, would consider themselves lifelong learners: they read new books on the subjects they teach or stay up to date with the latest uses of technology in the classroom. Learning these new pieces of information often fits neatly into existing understanding. This kind of informational learning can be found in collaborative teacher teams in schools across the country as well: an ELA teacher team discusses incorporating a new book into the curriculum or a grade team learns how to use a new software program to input grades. As we get older, we tend to learn more of what we’re already good at and take fewer risks to learn new skills we know we may not pick up quickly.
While informational learning can certainly lead to improvements in practice, we also need some of what researcher Ellie Drago-Severson calls transformational learning. In Helping Educators Grow: Strategies and Practices for Leadership Development, Drago-Severson suggests that transformational learning “changes the way we see and understand the world” and is significantly more challenging than informational risking (7). The reason is that it is risky. It makes you realize that you might not get everything right immediately. But when teacher learning focuses on processing new ways of understanding, teachers change more than just what they know; they change how they know. This can be powerful.
In our work with schools at Eskolta, my colleagues and I have seen many examples of the power of this kind of transformational learning.
At one school, a social studies teacher rethought the value of student-directed learning. Fearful about sacrificing a class period of delivering content that would prepare students for a state exam, the teacher decided to take the risk and lead a Socratic seminar. She listened to her students speak about a primary source text: they made connections to their own lives, picked up new ideas from one another, and drew on evidence from the text to support their opinions. After the class, she realized that the content they learned through this method would “stick” in their minds in a deeper way than any lecture covering the same content.
At another school, a math teacher rethought what it means to be a mathematician. Frustrated that his students were not persisting independently on challenging problems, this teacher decided to take the risk and open his classroom to observation. In a team meeting that day, his colleagues surfaced observations on the students’ learning process, and he realized that too often he responded to students’ calls for help on problems by providing the answer. The next week, he tried giving students the answers to challenging problems beforehand and asking them to figure out the method. Being a mathematician, he told his class, is not always about finding the right answer right away.
For these teachers and others, transformative learning took time. They had to feel supported to know when it was safe to take a risk. They had to experience the change first and have time to process it in depth with colleagues. As teachers are expected to respond to the Common Core standards while facing expanding instructional accountability measures, providing the time and support necessary to transform their thinking—such as common planning time—can help them make deeply substantial changes.
When teachers are open to rethinking their assumptions about traditional education, it can have profound effects on student outcomes. Students who have been failed by the education system need teachers who are open to rethinking their assumptions about traditional education. They need their teachers to think as much about what they are or aren’t learning as how they are or aren’t learning.
After that initial hesitation with my mandolin, I finally took the chance, picked it back up, and decided to play again. It most certainly took time, and I still have a long way to go to reach my friends’ level, but the transformation in myself is worth it. Imagine the value when such transformations in ourselves help us be part of a transformation in learning for our students.