How Does Learning Happen?

How does learning happen? I haven’t asked this question aloud, but it keeps drumming inside my head each day. Somehow, we seem to get sidetracked by the more unimportant questions. Today, I’ve decided, no more side trips! It’s time to answer. There are a lot of reasons today is the day, but it all comes down to the thought that if I never wrote again, would I be satisfied that I’d written all that needed to be said. To me, I’ll feel a lot better if in my numerous posts, there happens to be this one, far more important post than the others. It’s time to do it, while the few brain cells I have are still firing. How does learning happen?

kingSo, how does learning happen? I think it’s true that we are really very influenced by recent teaching, and therefore recent learning, but you need to make it beyond the start. I’ve had, of late, and at this stage of my life, 3 interesting and younger teachers. From them, as a group, I’ve learned the answer.

The first is my grandson Kingston, who began by mimicking things said, but quickly began manipulating lessons and teaching. He’s 4 and has incredible patience for teaching me why I’m the Green Power Ranger. It’s true that I play the game, pretend I don’t understand, which makes him laugh, but there is a point where he gets a bit stern, gives me the stop sign, and on we go with the learning. I’ve learned my Green Power Ranger boundaries. I appreciate Kingston’s creative patience and stubbornness.

zakmalamedThe second is a wonderful young man, Zak Malamed, who I met at an education think tank. He heads up a group called Student Voice #StuVoice. Zak is a college student, great spokesperson for learner voice, and far wiser than his age. At that think tank he sat next to me, more than a third of my age, passionately talking about why he wanted to change the way education and learning happens. When there was a pause, I asked him, “Zak, how do you learn?” He stopped, smiled, and said, “No one has asked me that before?” And quite naturally, he began to talk through his answer. Someone should have asked Zak that question throughout his school career, and kept asking it. I told him that I would have. He smiled, and in his eyes I saw the twinkle of that creative stubbornness.

Jim WynnThe third is Jim Wynn, who I think of as my honorary head teacher, although I’d never taught for him, he’s a mentor. He’s younger, but can relate to my education history. There is also brilliance in his teaching method that hasn’t been lost on me. He never gives up on teaching. Not too long ago, he sent me a presentation he’d given in Latvia. I opened it today, and at the top of one of the slides was the heading: “How does learning happen?” Not sure how Jim did with the Latvians, but the question hit home with me. I know, when he reads this, he’ll be thinking, “It’s about time!” It would make a good table talk conversation, I’m sure, especially now, that I’ve finally gotten around to answering his planted, subliminal question! Jim is creative in his stubbornness.

So, what is the answer? How does learning happen? Well, that seems to be the easiest part of the education equation. We sort of know how to learn from the start like my grandson, and we have the power of creative stubbornness gifted to the very young. Somewhere, though, and it’s very early, and most times begins at the start of formal schooling, we lose that patience, as well as necessary stubbornness to creatively and educationally flourish and survive. When that begins to happen, it can get worse, unless there are safety nets of creative and gifted stubbornness offered in later grades. In many cases learning doesn’t happen, without super heroic teaching efforts. And it doesn’t get much easier during and after higher education—and into careers, which truly can be more of the same. Unless you’re fortunate enough to stumble upon someone creatively stubborn enough, and at the same time, patient enough to dangle the right questions, leading to the right answers, in front of you—you can be lost.

I know that technology has a lot to do with encouraging, enhancing, and enriching learning, as part of that safety net, but the answer to “How does learning happen?” is a primary function, set in our DNA from the start, that without nurturing can vanish, possibly never to be seen again. Learning happens at the start. It truly is there. The real question to answer needs to be: “How do we keep learning happening?” The answer is to remember to nourish that creative, sometimes patient stubbornness we have at 4, so it is not lost at 21, and needs no answer for reasons why not at 64.

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology experience, as well as a blogger on all things education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.

Ken Royal

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is an Education storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.
3 Comments on this post.
  • Jenn Lebowitz
    22 April 2014 at 3:22 pm -

    Great article- I love how you wrote about KIngston- he is quite a learner!

  • Lorraine Munro
    22 April 2014 at 5:26 pm -

    Hi Ken
    I love your grandson being the teacher and I’m glad you’ve learned your Green Power Ranger boundaries. It’s interesting that Zak had never been asked how he learns before it’s a discussion I’ve had with my daughter. She tried to tell her maths teacher that she didn’t learn the way he taught her, that she liked different methods of learning and different ways to show what she knew. Her maths teacher told her he had different methods. He had the green text book and the blue text book. He missed the point. She didn’t learn with a text book. As someone who works with early years I fully believe in the learning coming from the child. Watching and listening to the child as they communicate in their 100 languages. It’s when we start formal teaching that we can lose the spark that young children have. We need to talk to children more about their learning. The how, why and what.

  • Mallory Sturgeon
    6 May 2014 at 1:06 pm -

    Hi Ken,

    Love this piece! I have an opportunity you might be interested in that relates to your insight here. A company I work with has created the “world’s first kid-powered interest genome project” that empowers children to discover their keenest interests using a new online reader engagement and discovery platform. If you’d like to speak to the lead for reading engagement initiatives, feel free to contact me on my email.

    Thanks!