“I’M STILL LEARNING.” ~MICHELANGELO
Learning from Suzanne
A new grandmother’s reflections on learning
Every Friday, my husband Gerald and i have the privilege of taking care of Suzanne. We treasure this routine. When we arrive, Suzanne greets us with an enormous smile and then holds out her arms, signally that she wants to be picked up. We spend the day interacting with Suzanne, talking, playing, and reading books. We always go on an outing somewhere – to lunch, to the pet store, the grocery store, a museum.
One of the reasons these days are so magical is that they give us the chance to witness Suzanne’s learning. Every Friday she can do something new that she was not yet able to do the week before. This week she can get herself into a sitting position; last week she couldn’t do this. This week she can move from her tummy into a kneeling position facing the window. She can also pull herself into a kneeling position by grabbing onto my pants legs. At that point she puts one hand up, indicating that she wants me to help her stand. I’m guessing that very soon Suzanne will be able to pull herself into a standing position without my help.
As I watch Suzanne doing this “learning work”, I’m reminded of the gerbils my daughter Elizabeth used to raise when she was a little girl. We had many litters of baby gerbils which Elizabeth sold to the pet store when they became old enough. As a result, we became very familiar with gerbil development. Consistently, the baby gerbils went through a stage where they worked strategically on their jumping ability. There was a wooden block in their cage, and they would jump up on the block and then down, again and again, typically for several days until they became proficient with this new skill. And at that point the jumping practice stopped, and they focused their attention on other gerbil behaviors.
Suzanne’s practice of new physical skills is like the gerbils in some ways. She repeatedly pulls up on the things and people she encounters. She seems driven to work on this particular skill, building confidence and mastery. Suzanne’s learning is also different from the gerbils. When Suzanne pulls up on her grandpa’s legs and then is lifted into a standing position, she squeals in delight, experiencing and expressing the emotions of pride, joy, and love. She looks around from her new vantage point, seemingly taking in this new perspective on her world. She reaches for an object that she notices on the table, examining it with her hands and eyes and then exploring it with her mouth. Sometimes, Suzanne gets frustrated in her attempts to do something that is still difficult. She crawls near the table and wants to sit up but, because of where she is, she can’t get the needed leverage from her arm. So, she literally lays down and cries. But this only lasts a second and then Suzanne puts her Plan B into action, moving away from the table and trying again. She is successful and hollers in celebration.
Alongside her physical development, Suzanne is building cognitive and emotional proficiencies. These three strands of development are happening simultaneously and reinforce each other. Suzanne is driven to develop physical skills because they allow her richer cognitive and emotional experiences. She is motivated to work through her frustration and persevere with difficult tasks because she wants to master new physical abilities. The integration of cognitive, physical, and emotional learning seems so natural for a nine-month-old.
I wonder about the implications of this idea for all learners and for our schools.
Are you in the pit? I hope so!
The pit is a metaphor for cognitive conflict, a necessary part of learning that leads to deep understanding of complex concepts. British educator James Nottingham offers the idea of the pit as a way to help students think and talk about the process of learning and recognize the importance of productive struggle and the value of mistakes (2017). When teachers guide students in experiencing the journey into and out of the pit, giving names to the stages in this journey (Concept – Question – Cognitive Conflict – Construct – Consider – Eureka!), students strengthen their meta-cognitive abilities and self-efficacy.
The pit as a symbol for the learning process acknowledges the strong emotions that are a natural part of cognitive conflict. Nottingham says, If your students get into the pit, you should expect them to feel uncomfortable. I don’t mean anxious. I don’t mean overwrought or afraid. I mean the opposite of contented. I mean needled; spurred on to think more, try more and question more (p. 160).
The concept of the pit offers teachers a way of helping students to be comfortable with this discomfort as they grow the essential learning and life skills of academic risk-taking, productive struggle, and perseverance. In her book Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, Jo Boaler tells the story of a student who says to his teacher, Ms. Schaefer, I am really in the pit! And the teacher responds, Excellent! What classroom tools do you need? (p. 65-66). As facilitators of learning, teachers need to be personally familiar to the journey through the pit so they can effectively support students in learning how to navigate their own learning journeys.
The concept of the pit is valuable for learners of all ages as a frame for the important learning we do in our personal and professional lives. Learning occurs when our experiences cause us to question what we thought we knew. When we allow ourselves to ponder and push through that point of disequilibrium, we open the door to richer and more flexible understanding of the complex issues we encounter. Here are some of the learning pits I am currently finding my way though:
How can we help students strengthen social and emotional competencies as they learn mathematics? How is mathematics learning enhanced when integrated with social-emotional learning?
What does culturally proficient teaching look like and sound like? What steps can I take to grow my own understandings and skills for facilitating learning in a way that acknowledges and values diverse cultures?
How can I help preservice teachers develop the mind frames they need to be effective in the classroom?
What professional learning structures build teacher understanding of a mathematics curriculum these teachers never experienced themselves as learners?
Nottingham also uses the example of learning to ride a bike to illustrate the learning process. He spotlights the stage of wobbling, when the training wheels first come off and the new bike rider is still unsteady with his learning. Nottingham offers all of us this advice on learning and on life:
If you are wobbling, you are learning. And if you are learning, then you will flourish. (p. 3)
Boaler, J. (2019). Limitless mind: Learn, lead, and live without barriers. New York: HarperOne.
Nottingham, J. (2017). The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin._____________________________________________________________________
Resources worth checking out
Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers by Jo Boaler
Mathematics education researcher and leader Jo Boaler’s latest book is not specifically about mathematics although it certainly offers critical guidance for math educators. The principles shared have important implications for issues of equity and access in our schools and for social-emotional learning. Limitless Mind is a thought-provoking read about learning and what it means to be a learner at any age and in any context. As is typical of Jo’s books, the ideas presented are substantiated by brain science and authentic stories of Jo’s work with students in K-12 and university settings. Limitless Mind offers practical ideas but building your own identity and skills as a learner and supporting others in doing the same.
The book develops six key ideas about learning:
Every time we learn, our brains form, strengthen, or connect neural pathways. We need to replace the idea that learning ability is fixed, with the recognition that we are all on a growth journey.
The times when we are struggling and making mistakes are the best times for brain growth.
When we change our beliefs, our bodies and our brains physically change as well.
Neural pathways and learning are optimized when considering ideas with a multidimensional approach.
Speed of thinking is not a measure of aptitude. Learning is optimized when we approach ideas, and life, with creativity and flexibility.
Connecting with people and ideas enhances neural pathways and learning.
Jo challenges us to consider what we thought we knew about ourselves as learners:
[What if] we can all learn anything? What if the possibilities to change our expertise, to develop in new directions, to form different identities as people are actually endless and continue throughout our lives? What if we wake up every day of our lives with a changed brain? (p. 4)
The ideas in Limitless Mind are not yet common knowledge. I hope this book will be widely read by educators, by parents, by anyone who views herself as a learner or supports others as learners. It has the potential to change the way we see ourselves and each other, and the way we think about education.