Monday, December 2, 2013

The Serendipity of Learning

I wish I could take credit for this title, but I've swiped it quite boldly from the title of an article of the same title. As I noted when I scooped the article, I love the idea of serendipitous learning.

I came back to this article and this idea with a bit of wistfulness. For the past several months, I've had the privilege of working with educators who are implementing Common Core. Various approaches, various interpretations, various degrees of success. In fact, because of much of the conversation prompted by Common Core, I'm going to begin my own series on Common Core. Stay tuned for that.

One of the topics in the Common Core discussions is "productive struggle." Now I have to say that this is not a new idea. Richard Allington, a long-time educational leader with an emphasis in reading instruction, wrote in You Can't Learn Much from Books You Can't Read (2002) about struggling readers, mismatched textbooks, and encouraging students to struggle but not become frustrated. He repeated and elaborated on some of those ideas in Doing Right by Struggling Readers (2013). Perhaps we haven't always called it "productive struggle," but good teachers have always encouraged students to work beyond their perceived limits.

When I was a kid, I'd ask my mom how to spell a word or what it meant. Her response, "Look it up." Didn't seem to matter if I had no idea how to spell the word. And I remember sitting on the floor with that big dictionary on my lap getting lost in the words. Fast forward to high school and I remember sitting at my desk with the dictionary, just thumbing through it. I'd completely forgotten what I'd meant to look up.

Serendipitous learning. In my mind, learning that occurs unexpectedly in the midst of purposeful learning and which, one might hope, causes a tug of excitement in the student who just learned something through a brief foray down a rabbit trail or by feeling safe enough and encouraged enough to ask one of those potentially weird (aka open-ended, higher-order thinking) questions to which no one in the room knows the answer, but which the student is encouraged to explore. "I don't know, but that's an interesting question. Let's take about 5 minutes to see what we might discover. Maybe we'll see how that adds to what we're trying to learn today."

Right then. Discovery. Collaborating during the excavation and then finding even more unexpected connections. . .that the students make and to which the teacher might contribute.

Yes, the teacher is keeping a watchful eye on the clock and the day's learning objectives but immediately recognizes that this occasional expeditions of learning make some of the more commonplace experiences look, feel, and sound different. Maybe even better.

Yea, come on kids of all ages. Let's do some serendipitous discovery learning today.

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