Wednesday 22 Mar 2023

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Learning, Knowing and Understanding

By Karen Taylor, PhD., Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, International School of Geneva

A few months ago I wrote about an inspiring article by Patrick Alexander and Jacques-Olivier Perche in which they propose ways to help teachers find “a deeper, more profound connection with a sense of professional identity that is both practically and ethically grounded.” These words came back to me in a recent session of The Learning Principles: A Thinking Toolkit for Teachers, in which we focused on learning, knowledge and understanding in a way that exemplified what it can mean to engage in critical questioning of ourselves, our practice and our purpose as ethically grounded educators. 

Like many of my teaching colleagues, I get excited about big questions like “What is learning”? or “What does understanding look like”? We may not arrive at a mutually agreed upon answer and so we are obliged to enter into a space in which we accept ambiguity and engage in the sort of critical questioning that is fundamental for both us and for our students. 

At the beginning of the session we each took some quiet time to recall a recent teaching experience with five questions in mind:

  • What did you intend for others to learn?
  • What did you assume they did or didn’t know?
  • What was your method for getting them to learn?
  • How did you know that they had learned?
  • What might this tell you about your own understanding of learning?

Engaging in this exercise made me think about how learning can take place in unanticipated ways. It may not be the learning I intended to take place at all, for my students or for myself. Being open to the unpredictable and unexpected is an exciting feeling. I imagine it to be almost like flying. 

On that recent afternoon, Patrick Alexander, the course instructor, took us on a journey to explore the potential of a wide range of sociological, philosophical, psychological and anthropological theories that may help us to understand how learning takes place. Often, I think, we forget how many ways of knowing there are and how many of them take place outside of the classroom or even within the classroom in unanticipated ways. As Jean Lave wrote, “participation in everyday life may be thought of as a process of changing understanding in practice, that is learning.” 

There is something profoundly liberating and, to my mind, strangely comforting about the vastness of this way of thinking about learning. Of course there is content in what we teach, but freeing ourselves from the notion that we can control all the ways in which students will assimilate knowledge and integrate it with prior knowledge opens the way for us to recognize the tremendous capacity children have for reflective thinking, inquiry, curiosity and creativity. In this sense, our conversation during that session aligned well with the exploration of notions of childhood we discuss in Emerging Ethical Minds. For the subjective learning experience of each student to have meaning for others then somehow we need to allow for that learning to be visible, for children to be able to express their learning in a myriad of ways. All this brings me back once more to the five essential statements that we hope each child may be able to say about their classroom experience:

My teacher…

  • Knows me 
  • Checks what I already know and can do 
  • Teaches in lots of different ways 
  • Pauses to see if I understand 
  • Gives me choices.