How do I learn?  It took me a minute to self-analyse what works best for me, but I am in a state of constant learning, whether it be for grad class, teaching new material, implementing a new teaching method, or simply researching something that I find interesting, so learning is something I do literally everyday.   When I am motivated and interested I find that I can learn much faster and with more seemingly ease than when the topic is not meaningful to me. Yet regardless of whether it is math, language or dog training techniques, there are certain preferences that I hold when it comes to learning.

First I learn by reading – a lot.  From various sources and points of view.  I need to see things several times and in different ways before it sinks in.  Then I need to digest it – I need to be made to reflect on it and reword it….put it into my own words and take ownership of it.  Thus enters the writing.  I was always a journal-er, and so introspective writing helps me to make sense of things.

I also learn by doing.  Especially with a language.  I need to see it, hear it, repeat it, and then create with it – and do so several times.  But I get easily bored so I need to find programs or games or systems that keep me coming back and doing it in new, fresh ways.  When learning Italian I use a free app, spaced repetition flashcards, and post it notes all over the house.  I find beautiful Italian songs that inspire me to keep learning.  When learning the 50 states and their capitals (which as an adult I have to admit that I no longer could recall) I used flashcards, collaborative quizzing with my husband, listening to silly songs with the names, and picturing connections.  I need to circle things from many different angles for it to really sink in.  

When studying Spanish I learned a lot by listening while walking and repeating.  In fact that was one of my most pivotal learning discoveries, where I made the most progress the fastest.  I used to have a brilliant student who would come to school early and I would see her walking the halls reciting facts and formulas to herself, speaking it quietly to herself but still out loud.  There is a connection that happens between the movement and the speaking.  

In the context of school I learned best by reading on my own and then being in a small class where we could discuss what was read. I still learn by talking things out with others, bouncing my understanding off of theirs, meshing in some of their ideas, seeing points I had missed and incorporating their new ideas into my own or adding on to my ideas with some of theirs.

So to sum it up for myself, I prefer to learn by:

  • Reading a large variety on the subject
  • Practicing repetition in varying ways
  • Reflection and rewording
  • Moving while listening
  • Talking it out with others – collaboration

I find that I struggle if there is too much material to be covered in too short an amount of time.  I like to take my time and dig deep and was so frustrated in college that they rushed through so much material in each course.  To master something you must be able to get deep into it and wrestle with it, and that takes time.  But it is important to remember that although I may struggle more with certain types of classes and have what I call learning preferences, I don’t want to limit myself by saying that I CANNOT learn in these non-ideal situations.  Let’s pause here to clarify and dispell an long-held belief about learning styles…

So in actuality, the style does not affect the learning.  We are more capable than we think.  Anyone who knows me also knows that I am a fan of Montessori education.  When I discovered this educational method I was already a mother of 2 young boys but it inspired me so much that I decided to become a Montessori teacher and went back to (actually I had never been…so I started) college.  My youngest son was able to attend a Montessori school his Kindergarten year where I was an assistant teacher, taking classes towards my certification in that field.  I connected profoundly with Maria Montessori’s theories on education, and Piaget took a lot from her and continued to expand that philosophy.   

The philosophy with which I connect the most is her idea of allowing for the natural growth process to occur.  The belief is that the child already possesses all that is required to learn and develop – the teacher’s job is simply to provide the environment in which they can do this.  The teacher helps the student to learn how to self-govern, and once they know how to do that, they are free to choose the activity that speaks to them.  They can do what they need to do, when they choose to, and for as long as they need to.  Once they have mastered the lesson they feel satisfaction and are ready to move on.  The teacher observes and directs the student to the next activity.  They help to track the child’s progress, and always demonstrate the new activity so that the student knows what they are working towards. The teacher presents activities to the child until they recognize an inner yearning for that particular task and they engage with it.  When the child is abandoned in complete concentration to the activity (state of flow) and then engage in repetition with it, that is a sure sign that they are being fed and they are actively involved in building themselves.  The activity is meeting a need, and thus the child is developing in a healthy manner.

This belief in respecting the process, in respecting the student and allowing them to have a say in their education, in respecting the inner-man who is trying to emerge – this is what is reflected in the environment, the activities, the behavior of the teacher and the treatment of the students.  Montessori trusted the student with their own learning.

Maria Montessori says that when the students are working as if the teacher was not there – that is success.  The teacher wants to connect the student to the world and then get out of the way so that they can truly build their own knowledge and establish their own relationship with the world, going about their quest of becoming a man or woman.  The learner does the building and thus the learning.  The teacher is the guide, the observer and the protector of the process.  

This is loosely a constructivist approach, and I would say that if I had to choose one of the more classic formal philosophies with which to align my beliefs I would side within the constructivist movement.  Montessori also draws from the theories of Naticism – made popular by Noam Chomsky and his belief that language was something all humans were born with, as well as Empiricism – David Hume, John Locke and George Berkeley arguing that everything is learned through our senses and performing experiments on our surroundings.  Even though her approach held elements from both of these theories, her philosophy ultimately held more from what we know now as constructivism.  This philosophy tends to promote more of an active learning approach, or learning by doing, placing the learner as the star of the process and the only one who ultimately can construct their own knowledge.  Observations are to be made and reflections are an important part to add the new knowledge to the framework we have already built.  Using more of an inquiry based, problem solving and  project based approach, constructivism was first made popular by Jean Piaget.  It is also more collaborative in nature than traditional teaching approaches.

Although Maria Montessori opened her first Casa di Bambini in the early 1900’s, I believe that her wisdom, sharp observations and analytics of how learning takes place are finally circling back again with renewed urgency as we see that the effects of our traditional views on learning are not producing fully developed and engaged members of society.  We can do so much better and we owe it to our children to understand how they learn and to educate them in that manner.  Personalisation, respecting individual pace and interest, and allowing for choice and ownership are all important aspects of how I believe learning best takes place and also represent the most effective way that I can teach so as to truly assist the growth and development of my fellow human beings.  

Resources to check out:

Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spoiler alert (or helpful mini-summary): 7 Learning Principles
1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Bates, T. (n.d.). Learning theories and online learning. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/07/29/learning-theories-and-online-learning/

Here Bates gives a very handy summary of some of the major learning theories like connectivism, behaviorism, constructivism (yay!) and cognitivism.

Creativity and Language Learning. (2013, August 12). Retrieved July 02, 2017, from https://aiaconnect.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/creativity-and-language-learning/

I loved this article – it helped me understand the difference between divergent and convergent thinking and how languages use both to promote creativity

Cross, K. Patricia, What do we know about students’ learning and how do we know it? (March 2005). Berkeley, CA: Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.7.05

This was an insightful presentation given by Dr. Cross, drawing from research and results to show how learning actually takes place.

Donovan, M. Suzanne, Bransford, John D., Pelligrino, James W. editors (1999). How we learn: bridging research and practice. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Here the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice asks how the insights from research can be incorporated into classroom practice and suggests a research and development agenda that would inform and stimulate the required change.

Montessori, M., George, A. E., & Holmes, H. W. (1965). The Montessori method: scientific pedagogy as applied to child education in “The Childrens Houses” with additions and revisions by the author. New York: Schocken Books.

This is Dr. Montessori’s own book on her theory and methods – I cannot recommend her enough!

 

(2015, April 02). Retrieved April 21, 2018, from https://youtu.be/855Now8h5Rs