Sunday, August 4, 2019

Destroy Your Learning

Life is a process of creation and destruction. It's a closed loop, a circle of life, if I may borrow from Disney without being sued.

Education is no different.

You will often hear the argument made that "students don't remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel." I don't like this phrase. I think it discounts the way education cycles and builds on itself in a constant ever-growing circle. I will agree that my students will not remember everything I taught them, not in specifics, no matter how much I want them to. And I do want them too, so say all I expect them to remember is feels is to forget what my actual purpose as a teacher is. However, I know that what actually happens with what my students learn from me is they take it in, process it, and through that process it becomes fertilizer for what they learn next. That's the process. You could also say that what I teach acts as a foundation upon which the next layer of learning is built, and without a strong foundation each following layer gets weaker and weaker. Both metaphors work

But I like the one where they consume and reuse the knowledge better. And here's why- What my students learn in my class is almost never used whole cloth. Instead it is taken apart, rebuilt, reconstituted into something new. It's fertilizer, changing form while allowing new knowledge to grow. In order for my students to correctly and most fully use what they learn in my class they must destroy it, because only through destroying it can they find the pieces they need to move forward.

I think about my classroom. I never teach the same way twice. Things are always evolving, changing. How can I adapt this lesson, this project, based on both the reaction of the kids last year and the make-up of the kids in the current year. My lessons, whole and complete, are insufficient. They must be destroyed. I must get to the start of a new year not with whole, assembled blocks of education ready, but with pieces, chunks, fragments, building blocks of learning. And I must painstakingly reassemble these pieces day-by-day in response to the kids in my room.

That's freaking hard. It also needs to happen. I must destroy what I've done over the year. It's the only way to see it. It's the only way to make it True.

I've written four books. A Book is a major undertaking and you spend an unknown, unthinkable number of hours trying to get something in your head onto a page. It's a long process that involves destroying recent creations and remaking the world over and over. I use my experience with all other books in the process, but also the experience from the process itself as the Book teaches me what it's going to be. But there's a Goal, and End- Having a Book. Look, I made this Thing. I hold it in my hand. I have worked and toiled and I have accomplished what I set out to do and I feel fulfilled...for about thirty minutes. Because it's done and now what? At least at the end there is a Book. Maybe someone will read it.

Teaching a full school year is like that, but instead of having a Book at the end you have nothing. Nothing tangible. But the accomplishment and then the hole are still there.  The students move on, as they should, hopefully remembering what you taught them because they're gonna need it. That's why you taught it. The room is empty and waits for new students to fill it again. Anyone who has finished a school year knows this feeling. That last bell rings, or maybe after the two days of packing and report cards, everything is over, you lean back on a desk, take a breath, feel the stress and hours start to wash out of your shoulders. But hidden in there is a stopwatch counting down and a voice saying, "Now what?" And I destroy what I spent ten months building and start again.

I must be purposeful with my destruction. I must know my chunks and pieces and parts and remember how they used to go together so I can find different ways, or at least improved ways to combine them. I can't do that unless the knowledge is destroyed first.

At the end of every project my students make, the final action, even after Reflection, is Destruction. No one likes this process, by the way. Destroying what you know, taking apart your work, even if it is to make way for something better, sucks. This is mine and I made it and I worked hard on it and it's precious. That's why it's hard when you're challenged or pushed on something you built. That's why some say get out of your comfort zone without actually doing it. My students do not like breaking down their creations. They bargain and complain and whinge. But they do it. Eventually they destroy what they've built.

 There are practical reasons for this of course- We did group work, how are you going to evenly split that final product so the group gets what they want? How are you getting a cardboard arcade game on the bus? Does the adult you live with want a giant cardboard thing in their home? No, so we break it down.

But that's not the real reason we break our projects back down. We spend a week or more building something, learning from it, reflecting on it, taking purposeful steps with it, and at the end we have created something new, which is cool, it's amazing, it's wonderful and fun. The problem is that thing's purpose is not actually to exist. No one wants a cardboard arcade game or a giant Rube Goldberg machine. I don't want it, and I told them to build it. The purpose is the process, the act of doing. That's the point. That's why it's ok if the game doesn't work or the machine doesn't move quite right or the sculpture falls over. We reflect on it and in that reflecting we see the learning that went into the object. Then we take it apart. As it comes apart we see what held it together. We see where it was strong and where it was weak, we notice those things and learn from them. Destroying the product is the only way to see it, the only way to see what is True. We tear the tape off and remove the joints and flatten folds and fold flats and all of it goes back into the big box in the back of the room to wait to be used again for another project that I call my Cardboard Box Box.

The Cardboard Box Box changes then. It is no longer a box filled with cardboard in the back of the room. It's a box filled with experience, a box filled with lessons and learning. It's a physical representation of everything I've been talking about. Because the next time we have a project we're going to go back to that box, not to find the same pieces we just built with, but the right pieces for what we need. We're going to use what we built last time- in materials but more importantly in knowledge- to build something newer, something different. A new thing will emerge made of pieces of the past that are remembered and re-purposed and beautiful.

None of that can happen if the learning is not first destroyed.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too where there are a million pictures of the baby being uploaded every day.