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.

One thought on “Ninja Learning–How to Learn with the Sneaky Skill of an Assassin”

  1. Thank you for this interesting trial example. I’ve heard before about active learning, but ninja learning in which knowledge is injected in the activity without the students know that they are actually learning seems very interesting. However, it may be the case that some students are embarrassed of participating in the activity. Accordingly, sometimes it may be necessary to tell them explicitly that we are doing this to learn so and so.

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