Learning and Education

Ralph - Mexico, New York
Entered on November 30, 2008

I believe that learning is under appreciated. Partly because education is too often mistaken for learning and we who call ourselves educators forget that we can’t turn learning on and off.

I’ve taught welding at a vocational school for about 27 years. My students have ranged from honor students to those with profound learning and emotional disabilities. Like most educators I’ve learned most of what I think I know about teaching from my students. Like most educators I spend a significant amount of time attempting to design curriculum that will help my students learn effectively. I have come to believe that most of my successes resulted from happy accidents and most of my failures came from confusing education and learning.

My father taught welding for 20 years. He started late, in his 40’s after working as a welder and mechanic. If my father were alive and working in my school today he would likely give my principal a breakdown. He wasn’t much for lesson plans or “best practices” yet many of his former students claim he was the best teacher they ever had. My father had a very simple philosophy find something a student can do and help them do it.

I learned from my father that learning happens independent of intent or design. People are continuously learning and it does not matter if the lessons learned fit the lesson plan. Learning to weld requires attention to detail, focus, persistence and patience. It takes time to master the eye hand coordination and allow the evolution of perception from a bright light at the end of a stick to a complex set of variables affecting a molten pool of metal. I can guide a student through this process but in the end welding is something that more learned than taught. My role is to provide encouragement and support until my student learns to make a good weld.

The most rewarding part of teaching welding comes when a student masters that first weld. In the best of all circumstance the student not only learns to weld but learns the value of attention to detail, focus, persistence and patience. I’ve had more than a few students start doing much better in school after applying what they have learned to the rest of their education. This makes me wonder why traditional education can’t be more like learning to weld.

What does a young child learn when they perform poorly on an assignment? When the teacher asks, “Is that the best you can do” what are acceptable answers? What does a child learn when a teacher or parent becomes impatient with them as they struggle with a concept? What does a child learn when other children seem to grasp concepts more quickly?

I believe if we parents and educators paid closer attention to learning we would spend more time rewarding persistence, we would encourage patience and help students focus on the important details. Education would be less a contest and more of a quest. True this might not solve all the problems infecting education but it may just produce fewer demoralized students who have learned that education makes them feel bad.