Learning need not be all work

Before I found my way back to the academe, I worked as a programmer and systems analyst. One of the fond memories I have of that “era” was being invited to my daughter’s school for a sort of show-and-tell about what I did at work. At this time, I was rarely home; these kids barely knew who I was, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass my daughter. But how do you explain COBOL programming, data processing, and If-Else structures to 8-year-olds?!?!

Needless to say, the days leading up to my talk were stressful. Suddenly, all the PowerPoint slides that I throw at the newcomers to my team were of no use to me. Thankfully, an idea finally came to me – how it managed to pop into my usually methodical and no-nonsense brain I cannot recall now, but I certainly am glad it came just in time.

I turned to what I thought 8-year-olds will find more appealing: playing a game. We did a modified version of “Pass the message,” having the children form two groups and form a line, simulating a computer program. The “Message” is the data input that the child at the head of the line received, and passed on to the child behind him. The “Message” was “processed” by a group of two or three children, following “commands” that were given to them, before passing the processed data to the next group behind them. The “Output” was produced at the end of the line, and the children (thankfully!) had fun looking at how the initial message has changed, and how each group has contributed to that change. When the teacher facilitated a discussion afterwards, it seemed, at least to me, that the children did understand what was going on – and they had fun doing it. My daughter smiled proudly at me. I didn’t embarrass her! My day was complete.

This memory reminded me of how opportunities to learn are present in many different forms, and it does not necessarily mean sitting quietly for hours on end, listening to a teacher, reading books (or PowerPoint slides). Learning is not a solitary activity, and does not consist of receiving information, but constructing knowledge from experience. Which means that playing can give just as much – if not more – opportunities for learning as sitting in a classroom. Mark Carnes talked about active learning, and Jean Lacoste talked about giving students more autonomy and allowing them to take an active part in the learning process; all these point to a shift to a more student-centered paradigm that focuses on creating environments that produce learning, as opposed to simply transferring information.

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7 Responses to Learning need not be all work

  1. Rachel Kinzer Corell says:

    Great post! I’m not even sure where to start my comment since you have so many quotable ideas here. I’ll start here:

    “At this time, I was rarely home; these kids barely knew who I was, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass my daughter. But how do you explain COBOL programming, data processing, and If-Else structures to 8-year-olds?!?!”

    A++ to you as a mom for not only thinking about how to engage these kids regarding the work you do (especially in a way that would work for them) but also for thinking about your daughter’s need (childhood social circles can be brutal, after all). It also highlights the various interconnected contexts we must deal with as we try to develop instructional tools/lesson plans/lectures for the classes we teach.

    I also thought this statement was really insightful: “Learning is not a solitary activity, and does not consist of receiving information, but constructing knowledge from experience.”

    Yes, yes, yes! So many of my most memorable classes were the ones where the teacher found a way to include more than just lectures, from group work to games. Granted, it’s probably a little hard sometimes to think about how to structure games for some of the classes some of us are teaching at VT!

  2. Jyotsana says:

    Aww! That was a cool story and has a strong message. It is fantastic sometimes when how simply some things come to us and we think, “hey it was just an idea” but actually its a fantastic and incredible idea, right?!

  3. Qualla says:

    I love this Michelle! Everything about it! 🙂 Like you said, “Learning is not a solitary activity, and does not consist of receiving information, but constructing knowledge from experience.” This is SO true! I think too often we see it as a solitary activity – all dependent on the learner themselves. We’ve talked about this personally before but I believe that the best learning is done collaboratively and not unilaterally like a majority of our courses are designed. This is such a cool idea! It’s amazing what can happen when we simplify everything. 🙂

  4. Jake Keyel says:

    I 100% agree with you and the other commenters and you really hit the nail on the head when you write: “Learning is not a solitary activity, and does not consist of receiving information, but constructing knowledge from experience.”

    The “play” of even more traditional classroom interaction I think is so essential to deeply learning material and building critical thinking skills. One of the reasons why I’ve found completely online courses a bit lacking is you miss this interaction, particularly the spontaneous communicative aspects like in the message game. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how integral interaction and back and forth between people and ideas was to learning.

  5. jardonam says:

    Michelle, this is a fantastic post! I have to echo what everyone else said about how amazing play can be for learning by not making it solitary. I love the reminder that learning doesn’t have to be complicated or even sound overly intelligent to pass along a message. How often do we get into a mode of seeing powerpoints and lecture as the norm for education? This post was a lovely reminder to me that making learning accessible to people of all ages can still work on any level. Honestly, I don’t know what COBOL programming is, but this example gave me an idea of what it is you were doing at the time. I know people who think that because I am a PhD student that they won’t understand much of what I have to say, but doesn’t that defeat the point of education? Taking learning back to the simple, imaginative ways that reach children can still be an excellent approach to education just about anywhere! Thanks for your post!

  6. Catherine Einstein says:

    I agree that learn can have many different forms. You don’t have to be in a classroom nor do you need to be enrolled in classes to learn. Experience and self-study are just if not more important that what you learn in the classroom.

  7. Andrea says:

    Thanks for sharing Michelle! I really liked your post and the creative mechanism you used to teach 8-year-olds about the basis of programming. It serves as proof that even a subject that most people would find “highly technical” can be adapted in creative ways to ease understanding. I think that too often people argue that some of the more technical and theoretical subjects cannot be taught in any other way than the standard of unidirectional transfer of information from a teacher to the students. Your example is a testament to the contrary!

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