Ninja Learning–How to Learn with the Sneaky Skill of an Assassin

We’ve talked a lot in class about the importance of creating a learning space where students are encouraged to use their imagination to solve problems in class instead of working toward a prescribed solution or answer. This open-ended methodology allows students not only to engage in content based on their strengths, to make a more individualized learning environment.

We are beginning to see these trends become more and more prevalent throughout the country, the resurgence of hands-on learning, combining both theory and practice in activities that help make learning relevant and fun for students. At first glace, perhaps it appears to be a rather obvious notion. When asked his opinion on the nature of education, and the “teaching to the test” mentality that seems inherent in America’s school systems today, television personality, special effects extraordinaire, veritable geek Adam Savage of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, had this to say: “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.” Savage also added that STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be changed to STEAM “because you need art in there to complete an education.”

But we have this stigma around learning, that it has to be content-heavy, focusing on measurable results, that lead to productivity and ultimately that will produce students who can help boost the economy. And we forget that, when it comes to education, we are dealing with kids, and kids want to play. One of the best experiences that I had in school occurred in 8th Grade. We were in West Virginia History, in the last quarter of the year. We had already taken the Golden Horseshoe (an examination given to all 8th Graders in the state, which tests their aptitude about West Virginia history–those who perform well-enough earn the titular horseshoe as a consolation of their hard work and dedication), and state-sanctioned standardized tests were over. To cap off the year we, as a class, performed a mock trial, based on events that occurred during and immediately following the Civil War. Each member of the class had to take on a role, either as a witness, legal counsel, or even the accused and for the remaining four weeks of class, we had to carry on a trial. (The role of the jury was played by a class of 6th graders–who were a notoriously tough crowd). I was part of the defense counsel and I was in charge of a group of witnesses, one of whom, according to the script, died while giving testimony. I had to coach them on the appropriate answers to help ensure that our defendant avoided conviction. Navigating through special interests, hidden loyalties, even avoiding perjury, it showed how tedious and thrilling (not to mention, sketchy) the job of a lawyer can be. It was one of the best learning exercises that I’ve had in my life. Instead of merely learning or watching a video about the trial (which actually occurred, and centered around the alleged misdeeds surrounding a prisoner-of-war camp), we were able to recreate the actual trial itself, and in the case of our class, change history (the jury found our client not guilty).

This is the sort of thing Savage, and so many of the readings in this course, are talking about. Hands-on, active learning, providing an open-ended problem with limited constraints and then allowing a classroom to utilize their collective knowledge and individual abilities to collaborate toward a solution. In other words: to make students learn, without them knowing they are learning. I call this concept ninja learning.

The Important Stuff Isn’t on the Test

Students of my generation, that is, the generation who grew up as participants in No child Left Behind, the height of the standardized testing boom, are sick and tired of it. Ever since I was in 2nd Grade, I had to take a test for about 6 hours per day for a week; I had to take a Writing Assessment in 4th, 7th, and 10th Grades; I had 3 AP exams, in addition to the SATs and ACTs (twice), I even took a driving examination (again, twice, because, as I learned that day, it IS important to come to a complete stop at a STOP sign). I got into college as an undergrad, and had some reprieve…until I applied to graduate school and had to take the GRE. I’m just about done with tests, with people constantly feeling as though I have to measure up to a pre-conceived standard, that, as a result I am pitted in competition with all of my peers to see where we each measure up.

Sometimes we are so focused on the test, the final product, that we forget to learn anything. Teachers, whether due to incentives, regulations, or poor instruction, are sometimes stuck teaching linearly, sort of one-way teaching (teacher to student). Sometimes they open it up and it becomes two-way teaching (teacher to student and back–discussion). Why can’t we find more ways to teach that are harnessing more than memorization and study skills, such as what Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon talk about in their text Imagination First, going so far as to say that imagination “is…what makes education relevant–to everyone.” Allowing students the freedom to explore as well as the discipline to work toward a goal is an effective means of learning.

Here are some things I learned outside of the tradition classroom and standardized testing:

How to hold a baby.
How to tie a necktie (bowties still elude me)
How to read and write (technically this is cheating because I would have been taught in school, but already knew how when school started).
How to change the oil in my car.
How to change a tire on my car.
How to tell a joke.
How to throw a fastball.
How to bake cookies.
How to kiss.
How to talk to girls. (Not necessarily in this order…)

Most of these things are skills that I will use at various times in my life, and I would argue that they are just as important as what we learn in class. The difference is that I learned them by doing, by putting myself out there, into the world and experiencing them not only with my mind, but with my hands and my heart. We learn and use what we learn in a variety of ways; why shouldn’t we be assessed in a variety of ways as well? Perhaps, instead of asking “Will this be on the test?” we should be asking “What’s the best way to learn this?”

The Flynn Effect, and Other Reasons Why “Kids these Days” Are Smarter than Ever

Immediately following last Wednesday’s class, I heard something that changed the way that I look at not only this course, but also the way that I perceive learning. To start, I got into the habit of listening to podcasts because I had a job a couple of years ago that required me to travel over an hour for work. To kill the time–and prevent myself from dying in a fiery, though peacefully somnolent, accident–I figured that podcasts would be a good way to keep me focused and entertained on my way to and from work. I’ve since kept up this habit, and am now a shameless addict. I can hardly spend time alone, or do chores, or run errands without my earbuds in. Wednesday evening, on my way home, I listened to a podcast produced by, a comedy website that focuses on poking fun at and over-analyzinf popular culture (movies, television, music, history, etc.).

In it the podcasters were talking about how the generation gap is a myth, how we have this perception that each successive generation is essentially getting dumber, and things will never be as good as they were in the “good ‘ol days.” One of the most intriguing explanations for debunking this myth was the Flynn Effect, which according to every lazy researcher’s friend, Wikipedia, is “the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.” Essentially, James Flynn, a political scientist, studied the scores for IQ tests across generations, dating back to the 1930s. What he found was that not only are we progressively getting smarter with each generation–students 10 years younger than the previous generation are on average 3-5 IQ points smarter. If tested to today’s standards, students in the 1930s would be classified as mentally retarded. But before all you Beliebers start handing out dunce caps to your grandparents for not understanding your music or Youtube or for thinking that a “tweet” is just the sound a bird makes, know that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Flynn figured out that as each generation’s intelligence grows, so does the environment around those individuals. Intelligence and environment are relative to each other, and as the environment of an individual grows more and more complex, that individual must learn how to adapt to his or her environment in order to thrive. Think about it: since 1930, not only has literacy risen exponentially, but thanks to the web, we have a seemingly infinite amount of information at our fingertips. We multi-task, and speak in our own jargon. Our outreach grows more and more expansive everyday. We’ve had to grow more intelligent because our environment is consistently growing more and more complex, and vice versa. We are all bricoleurs, as Claude Levi-Strauss says, craftsmen using the tools available to us to thrive in an ever more complex world. Flynn calls this “equipment.” To throw someone from the 1930s into today’s world would, aside from making a trite movie premise, be like asking a blind man to describe color. By conventional standards, he would be ill-equipped to accomplish such a task.

Speaking of color… To better illustrate the complexity of our world compared to that of the past, let’s look at the work of Homer. In 1858, scholar and future Prime Minister of Great Britain William Gladstone, noticed that Homer had a few turns of phrase which seemed a bit peculiar to modern audiences. One famous example is when describing the ocean, Homer referred to it as the “wine-dark sea.” I’ve only been to the beach a handful of times, and not once did the water look like red wine–and you can rest assured that if it did, I would have stayed comfy and cozy in my air-conditioned hotel, thank you very much. This isn’t the only instance of this kind of strange color description. Gladstone continued: “Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.”

Gladstone’s explanation was that colors, as we know them, didn’t exist back in the time of ancient Greece. Blue in particular, as we conceptualize it today, didn’t exist. In fact, further academics found that the same is true for all cultures. Of all the colors to be studied, blue is consistently last on the list. The reason for this is that, aside from the sky and the sea, maybe a bird here and there (and blue eyes), ancient civilizations didn’t often encounter blue in nature. There was no reason to differentiate blue things from other non-blue things because there were so few of them. If you wanted to describe something as blue, you could compare it to the sky in spring or the sea on a clear day. The world was not complex enough to need differentiation between blue and non-blue.

Now all of this brings us back to our discussion for class. Taking what Ken Robinson said about learning, about fostering a love of learning, “a curiosity,” we should keep in mind that using the tactics that worked to teach students for past generations, are not always the appropriate tools to teach students today. We have evolved beyond the “traditional” modes of teaching, beyond chalkboards and handwriting. We now live in a multi-modal, ever-changing, ever-consuming, complex society, that is constantly evolving and expanding. Students today use the tools available to them to learn, and those tools are very different than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago and have more untapped potential than ever before. If we are to usher education and pedagogy in the 21 Century and beyond, we need to do so by staying ahead of the game, by learning new trends, new technology, to constantly continue to grow, change, and evolve, alongside our students. Progress only moves in one direction and we have to keep the engine running, otherwise we are all lost in our own “wine-dark sea.”

To check out more on the Flynn Effect here is James Flynn presenting a TED Talk.

To read a rather fascinating article about the color blue in culture, check this out.

And to check out the podcast that sparked this whole post, click on this link. Disclaimer: there is some adult language, as it is a comedy podcast. However, if it is your thing, I recommend checking out more of their episodes.