The ways we learn

The other day we were at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park enjoying some beautiful weather on a late January day – not something you get a lot of in Indiana!  While there, we were passed by a kiddo that was probably about the same age as my son Brody.  She was riding a bike.  Brody watched her go by, and said “I wish I had my bike!”  We told Brody that he could bring his bike the next time we came if he learned how to ride without his training wheels.  Imagine the whiniest 6-year-old voice you can as you read his response: “I’m never going to learn how to do that” and his head went down in disappointment.

I told him “The only way you’re going to learn is if you try!”

This interaction got me thinking about when I was learning to ride my bike.  The training wheels had come off, I may have been wearing a bike helmet (come on, it was the 80s!) with my hockey shin guards and elbow pads.  I mounted up, and I tried…  I didn’t make it very far before I bit the dust.  But I kept getting up and trying again… and again… and… You get the idea!  Eventually I had it down – I could hop on and go without a second thought.

It took time for the neural pathways to connect so that my brain could figure out how to put together the locomotion, the balance, the understanding of body position, and so much more that goes into riding a bike.  Here’s the thing about learning to ride a bike… the only way you can learn is to do it.  No amount of time spent learning about how the bike works would have helped me to ride more quickly.  I wouldn’t have been a superstar rider on that first day if I understood the role that inertia, friction, and rolling resistance plays in being able to get myself to go.

I just had to get on the bike and try.  For those of you who are parents, or who might have helped a youngster you know learn to ride a bike, you know what that it’s so important to try it over and over.

I’d even argue – through my own experiences and the experiences of my daughter Lainey – that we learn how to ride a bike because of our failures, because of the falls.  Our brain figures out that we did something wrong, and helps our body to do it differently the next time until we have it down pat.

Learning anything does not happen by watching someone model.  Showing our students how to do something doesn’t teach them.  Having your students read about how to do something doesn’t help them learn how to do it.  Even watching a video doesn’t help them learn.  Ultimately the only way they are going to learn is by doing something.

Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind

Always be thinking about how you can make the activities in your class be focused on how students can actually do whatever it is that they are learning about.  Less time showing, more time actually doing!  That’s how we all learn just about anything!

What are your thoughts?  Am I wrong?  Are there things you’ve learned that didn’t actually involve “doing” it?  Are there other examples like the bike that you would only learn by doing?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, as I was writing this post, it got me thinking about an excellent video by Destin Sandlin, who runs an educational video web series called Smarter Every Day.  It’s a little under 8 minutes long, and goes through his process of learning to ride a bike in a whole new way.  Check it out to see how learning by doing really works!

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