A light-bulb moment 30 years in the making

by Sandra Johnstone, Teaching Faculty, Faculty of Science and Technology, VIU

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28402283@N07/3347745000
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28402283@N07/3347745000


A few weeks ago I had a busy day. I attended a morning meeting to discuss learning outcomes for our programs in the Earth Science department. In the afternoon my daughter and I jumped on the ferry to visit my parents. Over the weekend conversation with my parents flowed between the challenges of parenting, my trials and tribulations in teaching, and the learning outcomes that our department was working on. My mom brought up some long forgotten experiences from my own childhood, and *bing!* the light went on! I realized that the learning outcomes of my own education were the same as those that I was trying to achieve for my students.

My formative experiences in the Education System

My early education (K-7) was not traditional. I attended an “alternative” school in Surrey BC that was based on the philosophies of psychologist Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937), and one of his disciples, Rudolf Dreikurs (1897 – 1972). Adlerian philosophy has many facets, but the ideas that most applied to my early education include: children as equal members in families, classrooms and society; responsibility and decision-making for children; positive encouragement, and non-competition.

My educational experiences were shaped by these philosophies, creating a learning environment that was different from the typical child’s education in British Columbia. For example, I didn’t sit in a desk; I sat in a circle with my classmates, and often the teacher, to facilitate discussions. The school had no competitive sporting activities; I did, however, learn how to juggle and roller skate. I got my first report card in Grade 7, when I had to write my own then stand in front of the class and justify it. I was never asked to memorized my times tables; I was taught to figure it out. And the one of the strangest differences of all:

Play commitments

Each day before I went out to play at recess I would have to tell the teacher and my classmates where I would be playing. Soccer field? Covered area? The big structure? Every student in the class would commit to playing in one area for the duration of the recess and the teacher would record it on the board.

Stupidest thing ever? Surprisingly, not!

As an adult, I never understood the play commitments. And when my mom brought it up during my visit I told her so! But then she reminded me about the part of the process that I’d long since forgotten: after recess we would come back in and I would take my turn with everyone else to describe my play experience and think about whether I would make the same decision the next day. The amount of time and energy that my elementary teachers invested in empowering us to make decisions, and then in helping us analyze our decisions, is staggering.

My light bulb moment

Now I appreciate that all the children at Discovery School made conscious decisions about their intentions for play, monitored the results, and then evaluated their decisions to see if changes were needed. We learned that some decisions led to better results than others. And that, when we didn’t like the outcomes of our first choice, we had the power to change our choices to achieve a different outcome the next time.

This resonates strongly with me as we develop the learning outcomes for our program, especially the outcome that speaks to metacognition and self-awareness:

“Upon completion of our program students should:

develop as a self-regulated learner using metacognitive learning strategies, self-awareness techniques, self-motivation and behaviourial skills to set goals, manage performance at every stage of learning, monitor time efficiently, engage in meaningful reflection and deep learning while making appropriate adjustments for academic, professional and personal success and work-life balance.”1

Perhaps this outcome is a bit more nuanced that what I was expected to accomplish as a six year old child, but I think they are based on the same fundamental principles. As a child I was asked to figure out if my decisions achieved the results that I desired, and now I’m asking my own students to think about their own learning, decisions, and behaviour so that they can better achieve their goals.
1. Thanks to Liesel Knaack for the elegant phrasing.