Learning Is As Learning Does

Remember one of Forest Gump’s more memorable lines, “Stupid is as stupid does”?  I had a hard time understanding this phrase initially, so I did a bit of research.  My research said it was supposed to be a take-off on the old phrase “Handsome is as Handsome Does” which translates to “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover”.  I think I get that…but I have a different slant.  Here’s my thought…People expect stupid people(based on appearance, dialog, whatever) to be stupid because they only know and will only know stupid…Stupid is as stupid does because that’s all stupid knows to do. 

Applied to the education space, it might be something more like, “Learning is as learning does”.  I think Forest was trying, in his “special” way, to warn us about doing something in a particular fashion just because that’s the way someone expects you to do it…or because, and this is my favorite motto, “it’s always been done this way”.  If you are distilling a fine scotch whisky, that might apply, after all there is something to be said for tradition.  But in most facets of our lives and certainly in our careers, this is almost never a reasonable motto to adopt.

Some of life’s more harsh realities don’t hit you until you are older.  Therein lies one of the harshest realities of all we eventually have to face…we’re old.  Well, at least I’m old.  I admit it…I know it deep down…but my one saving grace is that I don’t feel it (except on really cold mornings when I totally get how my grandmother used to feel when she said she was, “all stove up”).  So what does this all have to do with education, much less technology?  This.  Learning today for my 10-year-old son can and does occur very differently than it did when I was 10.  We should avoid “Learning is as learning does”…don’t assume learning can, should or even will occur today as it did for me all those years ago. 

Here is a recent example of how learning occurs differently today.

On a recent drive home from school, my 10-year-old son asked me a question, one I didn’t have the answer to (no big surprise there, he’s really good at that).  He asked why the Fahrenheit scale started at 32 and went to 212 rather than zero to 100 like the Celsius scale.  I was initially inclined to save face and take the Cliff Clavin approach, fabricating something totally plausible in his 10 year old mind.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I tossed him my iPhone and said Google it.

It is in-fact a very interesting story about Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit if you don’t already know it. 

Learning occurred right there in the truck, while we were driving and, most importantly, while it was relevant to my son.  Seems totally natural/reasonable to me now.  But how could this occur?  It simply could not have occurred when I was 10.  Back then, if I wanted to learn something like this, I had a process to go through:

Step 1.  I would have had to wait until I got home.  Cyberspace wasn’t even a glint in Vent Cerf’s eye at this point in history.

Step 2.  Find an encyclopedia and hope what I was researching was within the limited confines of its covers…and if it was a current topic, hope my mother had purchased the yearly updates.

Step 3.  Look it up, provided I knew how to spell it…and with Fahrenheit, well, I probably would have known to start with the Fs.

But the most significant deterrent to this process for me was distraction.  Distractions loomed around every turn…up every tree…under every rock…even deep within the guts of the old radio I had recently dismantled.  The challenge for me would have been to keep my question on the front of my brain until I got home…which was highly unlikely.  And then when I got home, I would have had to fight off my desire to get a spoon full of peanut butter and plop down on the floor in front of the TV to watch Batman…resisting this was even more unlikely.  Given this, who knows how many childhood questions went totally unanswered…how many topics of interest that could have blossomed into a life-altering redirection completely passed me by because I couldn’t get to information fast enough? 

Things are WAY different now.  Society today has unprecedented access to volumes and volumes of information…and kids, call them digital natives, screenagers, etc., are in prime position to absorb this massive amounts of data.  Technology has truly facilitated a ubiquitous learning environment.  Learning can genuinely occur anytime and anywhere.  And this learning is fundamentally different from the anytime, anywhere learning of my day.  Today’s technology fuels learning at a much higher level and it enables far deeper thinking on any given topic…if we as educators allow it to happen.

Given the impact of technology on the world, it’s really no stretch to understand the inevitable impact on education.  My boss put it best in one of our first ever tech roll-out sessions…”Granted, the computer is just a tool…but it’s the most powerful tool for education that’s ever been invented!!”  But if your definition of technology that starts and stops at computers, it is quite short-sighted.  Digital cameras, both still and video, digital audio devices, iThings (Pod, Pad, Phone, etc) can all play a role in the classroom.  A student doing a presentation on “The Ecosystems of The Congo” in a technology-rich environment spends far less time on the mechanics of assembling the presentation, i.e. finding/cutting/coloring and gluing pictures or text, and far more time absorbing knowledge…which, after all, is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

So we need to go from a “Learning is as Learning Does” mentality to a “Learning is as Learning Needs to Do” mindset in the education space.  Don’t restrict access to technology simply because the assignment or lesson can be done without it…or worse, you “don’t get it”.  Did earlier teachers restrict students to the slate after pencil and paper became available.  No.  What about when the technology of the printing press enabled mass production of books, did teachers still restrict all students to a single copy of a given book?  Doubt it.  I’m old enough to remember when handheld, four function calculators became readily available, even if they were like $100, and most of my teachers were thrilled to see me use one. 

 Technology Rules!  Explore Its Many Facets!!   Empower Students!!!