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It Depends

What is the secret to how people learn?  I’m going to tell you.

This is the statement that opened my Master’s program in Educational Psychology at the University of Iowa.  As Lowell Schoer delivered this statement, I leaned forward in my seat.  This is exactly what I wanted from my studies.  Having completed my first year of teaching I felt that I had more questions than answers.


What?  No! I shouted in my head.  There has got to be an answer.  I came here to learn how to do it right.  I was floored and disappointed.  As my studies progressed and I continued to gain experience teaching, I realize he did have the answer.  So often in education we look for the ‘magic bullet’ or ‘chase the shiny red ball’ trying research based interventions and new curriculums hoping to make a difference.  In the end, what matters more than any of those things is the interaction occurring between teacher and student, what each bring to the table, and what they are both willing and able to learn and do.  Learning is both a science and an art.

Think of it this way.  Suppose I asked, “Should I wear cowboy boots today?”  Your response most likely would not be a simple yes or no answer but a series of questions.  “Where are your going?”  “What are you doing?”  If I told you I was going to a wedding you may simply respond, “No, don’t wear cowboy boots to a wedding.”  But what if you had probed far enough to discover that it was a Western themed wedding being held in a pole barn.  Then your answer would probably be different.

So how do we help our students learn?  We do it by starting with the mindset of it depends rather than from a place of knowing all the answers.  This doesn’t mean we throw out the research, the science.  On the contrary, we use it along with what we know about the student to inform and guide our choices and next steps.  This is where teaching becomes an art and leads us to design thinking.  Design thinking is a growing movement in education and asks us to start with the end user and try to understand the people and problem before determining a solution.  If you are new to design thinking, start with this blog, The Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom, by educator and leader in this area, A.J. Juliani.

As I think back, I have been using design thinking before it was a thing.  Soon after taking my first educational psychology course I began teaching gifted students in a pull-out program.  Working with these students, I developed what I called IDEAS.  Initially it was a framework to help the students study a topic.  I wanted them to learn how to research and learn about something but also to share it with an authentic audience.  Since then, I have used it to guide most of my own work in designing learning experiences for students in addition to having students use it to guide their work. Below is a chart that captures each of the stages of this framework and how I think about it for students use and how I use it as a teacher in designing work for students.MeaningFor studentsFor teachersIIdentifyWhat do you want to learn about?What do you want students to know, understand and do?DDiscover-DesignWhat’s already known about this topic? What questions do you have?  What is your plan or design?What do your students already know?  What are some best practices for teaching this topic?  What is your lesson plan or design?EExploreRead. Investigate.  Create.  Explore what’s been done and your own ideas.  Try something.  What works, what doesn’t?  Ask why and shy not?  Look at the problem from a different point of view.AAnnounceShare what you have learned.SSelf-ReflectThink about what you have learned.  Write about it, draw or photograph it.  Remember what Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

This week I’m teaching an online course through Hamline University entitled, Gifted Students in the Primary Classroom.  One of the first assignments is for students to identify questions they have about giftedness.  I use these questions to help guide our learning and develop a FAQ sheet.  After having taught this course a few times, what always strikes me about the students’ questions is that there are rarely simple or single answers to their questions.  While there is certainly a body of research in gifted education to draw from, the real answers lie much more in Lowell Schoer’s answer to my burning question, “It depends.”  I firmly believe the more we embrace this answer, the closer we will get to having classrooms with authentic learning experiences and engaged learners and the better we will get at meeting the diverse needs of our classrooms.  The more we think of our classrooms as playgrounds for design thinking rather than places to disseminate knowledge, the more we will embrace the idea, “it depends.”  While ‘it depends’ refers mainly to the fact that there is a unique combination of students, curriculum, backgrounds, and teachers in every classroom, I’ve also come to think of it in a broader sense too. The learning that occurs in our classrooms also depends on us as teachers.  What do we bring to the classroom?  How do we structure the environment for learning?  How do we view our students?  How do we adapt and learn in order to provide better experiences for our students?  Whether we realize it or not, our students depend on us.  What should we do?


Special thanks to Elena Peterson for the Cowboy boot photo.  I asked for a picture of cowboy boots.  I got some of the most amazing and creative pictures I have ever seen.  See the full photo shoot here.

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