Unlocking learning


In an interview with Jo Boaler, Carol Dweck encourages teachers to rethink the way we help students who are struggling in our classrooms. The phrase, unlock learning, jumped out of the computer and has been stuck in my head for the last few days. As I’ve had a few days to toss around the phrase and the connecting ideas, I started to unlock my own learning. Two strategies/methods for unlocking learning spoke most clearly to me.

Unlock learning through simplicity

In this case, simplicity does not just mean minimizing, but also clarifying our purpose.

Jeremy Mikla’s post (which is older, but I discovered last week) explains the changes he made in his long-standing class rules. Mikla’s ‘New Rules’ not only boiled his expectations down to a minimum, but also made it clear what he cared about most. Having such simplified rules should make it easier to decide which elements to include or exclude from your teaching. I have always been one to try new ideas in my classroom, but as I’ve gained more experience, I’ve also learned which of those ideas fit into my classroom best. It has allowed me to make better choices. I don’t have to try everything that sounds fun or engaging. I can feel more confident that I’m picking the ones that I can maintain over time, the ones that might unlock the learning for my students.

George Couros’s post today defined success as leading a happy, healthy life. This simple, but purposeful definition made me question some of my recent work (in a good way). The message I took away from his post is essentially that change in education is a good thing, but prescriptive change, or the sense that every change is for everyone, often results to our students’ detriment. It’s easy to get caught up in the energy of educational ideas like Genius Hour, STEM, entrepreneurship, or others. These ideas have value, but they, like everything else in teaching, are not one size fits all. Students can learn from each of these, but to say that each student needs to be an engineer, or an entrepreneur, or a genius (by someone else’s definition) is setting some students up for failure. Using these these frameworks to help them learn skills that unlock a happier, healthier life is the real goal.

Unlock learning by challenging yourself and allowing others to challenge you

Mikla’s rule changes were sparked by a brewery menu; Couros’s seemed inspired by his experiences and the words of respected authors. In both cases, however, they were challenged to rethink a previous understanding. Their learning was unlocked because they were challenged by someone or something that resonated with them.

Yesterday, I was working with a group of teachers to consider the possible impact of design thinking in our school and specifically on Genius Hour, which we’ve now used for two years. My friend and I were in a debate over the question over whether students needed to do more than presenting their learning at the end of their genius hour study? Do students need to design a product or can they simply learn for learning’s sake? The details of the debate and the result were important to us at the time, but not in how I reflected on it today.

The importance to me now is that we were able to challenge each other in a way that I don’t always think happens with colleagues. We were able to question each others ideas, to disagree without being disrespectful or diminishing the professional relationship we’ve built over the past few years. I was able to walk away appreciative that we had the debate, thankful that I work with people that push me to think harder and deeper about my beliefs. Sometimes things have to get more complex before you can simplify them. Through our debate, it made us consider, as a group and individuals, what is really important about genius hour time, about design thinking, about the learning we want our students to experience. We had to ask, what is our goal for the students, for ourselves?

We have yet to reach a conclusion, but it feels like I am continuing to unlock my learning. It feels like we are allowing the challenge to clarify our purpose. Most importantly, it feels like this work will help us unlock learning for more of our students.



2 thoughts on “Unlocking learning

  1. Another thoughtful post Chris! Love this quote from Carol Dweck and also the idea of ‘simplifying’. I get what you and Jeremy are talking about and doing. This reminds me of Angela Watson’s message to give ourselves permission to do fewer things better. Since this is something I’m working on, it’s great to keep hearing similar thoughts. Thanks so much for sharing!


  2. Very well said. I agree!

    I’ve now watched that interview, and I have a host of notes to ponder over and discuss later.


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