What is the purpose of learning, anyway?

I am starting to think that a number of the challenges we puzzle over in education boil down to a lack of authentic purpose for the learning we are asking students to do. Perhaps I overstate this, but I am not convinced that we are talking about this in blunt enough terms. We spend a great deal of time playing with ideas that address this need for authentic purpose – Problem-Based Learning, Inquiry, Invitations to Learn, to name a few, but I am starting to see that the reason we are so intrigued by these kinds of learning is that we see evidence of a strong disconnect for many students in our system. To make matters worse, when we examine even those students who appear to be connected (the high achievers for, example), we see that their buy in is based on factors that often have little relationship to meaningful exploration. They are engaged because they want good marks and approval and sometimes feelings of accomplishment. They are not engaged because the work really means something to them; because they are doing something that is compelling and relevant and beneficial.

So, as I see it, this is a pretty big deal for most of our students. I don’t mean to imply that there is never a purpose to what we are doing in schools. I think there is – certainly a number of adults have spent a great deal of time designing curricula they feel has definite purpose to students. I also don’t mean to imply that there aren’t teachers who are thinking about this because there are. I know of teachers who invite students to write persuasive letters to people who can actually effect change. I know of teachers who invite students to ask questions that are meaningful to them. I have visited many classes where students are highly engaged and excited about what is happening and feel very compelled to learn. There is much good learning happening in education. The times when I start to think about the need for authentic purpose are when I see students putting in time, completing work for one audience and purpose (the teacher, for marks), asking why they have to learn this, finding excuses to engage in activities that are meaningful to them but not their teacher. This is when I start to really think about authentic purpose.

I had a couple of conversations with teachers in a high school recently about re-demonstrating learning and the authentic purpose discussion soon followed. The teachers were articulating the challenges associated with their re-demonstration policy (and our Division’s philosophical statement that expresses the appropriateness of having students re-demonstrate learning.) There was agreement with the idea that some students need more time than others to adequately demonstrate learning. There was also the acknowledgement that it makes sense that learning can and will always continue and students should have the ability to show growth on required outcomes at any point that it happens. However, the challenge occurred with some students’ interpretation of this policy – namely that there was no need to put forth an effort or adequately complete the work first time around, because they could always re-demonstrate at will. The results of this interpretation have culminated in teachers running themselves ragged assessing and re-assessing the same work over and over until the student grows tired of the exercise. This is not working for the teachers and, I would argue, isn’t really working for the students either.

So, what is re-demonstration and what does this have to do with authentic purpose? Well, I have noticed that this term is used most often in middle and high school settings. In elementary school, teachers seem to call it formative assessment and feedback because there is not always a summative “event” that defines the demonstration. Students demonstrate learning when they are ready in a whole bunch of ways and it is usually preceded by feedback. However, in middle and high school, this seems to be interpreted a little differently. There are specific summative events and re-demonstration follows this event. So, what it means is that teachers are trying to re-teach after they have moved onto a new set of outcomes.  Then, they are scrambling to find time to re-assess students and score these assessments. No wonder they are tired and frustrated!

What I am curious about is how we can invite students to want to do well the first time, so this does not become a game of math and manipulation. And, what this leads me to is the authentic purpose challenge. If the reason for learning and then showing our learning is connected to something we care about and something that holds intrinsic accountability, then we want to do well. For example, if I know that at the end of a unit I will have to actually mail a letter to a musician I respect, I am going to have a vested interest in ensuring the letter is coherent and persuasive (if needed) and engaging. There is no real re-demonstration in this case, because once the letter is sent, it is sent. Instead, the re-demonstration (if you will) occurs before the letter is mailed. We work on it through inquiry and continuous feedback until it is ready. This is the learning cycle. I suppose if things don’t go well, we can try another letter but I think the chances of this are less than if the only reason for writing the letter is because the teacher said so and it is for marks.

I know this is an over-simplification of a very complex issue but I keep thinking about this each time I find myself talking about engagement and assessment. I understand that every single thing we do in schools cannot always be connected to an authentic purpose for each and every student. I also understand that sometimes the best purpose is “because it is fun.” That’s okay. However, I do propose that we could think about this a little bit more. The purpose has to extend beyond the purpose adults have for placing an outcome in a curriculum or bringing it up during the day in a classroom. The purpose has to connect to the student. When that happens, other problems sometimes fall away.

3 thoughts on “What is the purpose of learning, anyway?

  1. This is a complex issue. In fact, I was just speaking to an Alg2/Trig teacher about trying to help his students understand the “why” of his class. I don’t know where to go with this, but so much of the learning we ask of students depends on faith that it has a point. If not the math itself than the ability to think mathematically. I also don’t think everything has an authentic point. i love reading the news but I don’t write congress when I’m done. I have also laid out deeply connected and real-life connected ELA lessons that students could care less about. I know that it’s best to always push for inclusion of what’s intrinsically meaningful to them, but I also wonder if our teens have had enough life experience to limit their learning to what they enjoy and/or are interested in. This is like my kids telling me they don’t like food that they haven’t yet tried.

    I’m not against attempting to connect our curricula to the kids’ lives and interests, but I do worry about the myopia involved in doing so. The point of things also can’t be to teach students the lesson of “sucking it up” and “doing things they don’t like” (both of which I’ve heard). I also said that I can only teach things when I understand their merit. As an ELA coordinator, I have always worked to give teachers choices of books to use in their courses and students choices of books to read for credit. As admin, I focus PDs around problems of practice that I see and remind teachers of the compliance and the ethical reasons to improve. Alas, they too tell me “I’m not interested. No thanks.”

    • Your points are well taken. It is incredibly complex and, to make matters more complicated, contextual…sometimes right down to individual student.

      What I have been thinking about is how to expand my definition of purpose – to broaden it. Because, if I limit myself to the notion that all purpose has to connect content to life (which doesn’t sound limiting…but is) then I run into the risk of making things difficult for myself and students. So, what I have been thinking is that it might help me to look at purpose in two ways – purpose that reflects inward and purpose that reflects outward.

      The outward purpose includes things like: writing to someone to share my skills and understanding, presenting to a community group, Skyping with a scientist or politican, publishing a log, performing a play at a daycare, engaging in a mock trial at a legal establishment, writing an article for a newspaper, collaborating in a group to create an event, and so on. These are purposeful connections, to be sure, and the kinds of things I am suggesting are beneficial to engage in, to increase buy in and decrease compliance and “marks” as the only reason for doing something.

      Inward purpose might include things like: I want to do this for the purpose of enjoying myself; I want to debate this topic because I am wondering about it, too; I am going to create this multi-media presentation because I find technology cool. Maybe purpose is the wrong word – it sounds a lot like intrinsic motivation. But when I think about the purpose I have for doing many of the things I do, it is related to these factors – joy, challenge, fun, interest, competition, relaxation.

      I think what I am trying to present is the idea that we have to look beyond the “marks” and the “teacher.” We have used grades as a purpose for too long and I have seen too many examples where I get the very best from students when they want to do what we are doing because it fills a need – looking either outward or inward. I am no longer satisfied with the idea that students do things for me, because I said so.

      My success rate? Well, that will always be a work in progress. But it is better than “the old way.”

  2. The bottom line is if there is no engagement, no purpose there is no learning. Period. We fool ourselves into thinking that “sometimes they have to learn things even if they aren’t interested”. We only get away with that when we believe that short term memorization is actual learning. Everything we know about the brain and learning shows that short term memory/cramming is not lasting.

    If we gave students the same assessments we currently give 2 years later, we’d be appalled at the results. Very few of us could likely pass many of the tests we took in high school.

    We know great teachers move beyond this and learning actually occurs that lasts. Yet these are rarely the things we spend time celebrating. We have to keep working to turn the ship around. I appreciate your thoughts and efforts here.

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