Tag Archives: Learning

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

Anxiety
And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.


Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

A Night in Outer Space, or My First Onsen Experience

I had no plans last Saturday night and eagerly said yes when my roommate asked if I’d like to join her at the onsen. Having heard her mention it before, I knew that the onsen was a sort of sauna/spa and I knew that we’d be naked. I love trying new things and I’m willing to do just about anything with a buddy.

Still, I asked for step-by-step directions before we left the house. What did I need to wear? (Something easy to take off.) What did I need to bring? (Face lotion, maybe a face mask to do a mini facial.) That’s it? That’s it.

And off we went!

I learned that an onsen is a Japanese hot spring, which is replicated as best as possible in a bathhouse, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Bathhouses are part of Korean culture, too, and my helpful guide told me about the differences between them.

When we walked in, we were given small and large towels and a kimono. We locked up our clothes and personal items and like a child, I subsequently copied everything my roommate did as we moved in and around each room.

The first room was the shower room and we sat on low stools, getting used to the heat of the air and temperature of the water. I adore piping hot showers and haven’t had one since leaving the US, so it was really enjoyable to just feel such hot water on my body.

From the shower room, we spent a few minutes sitting in the sauna. I rubbed salt on my arms and washed it off with hot water, leaving a softness that I can still feel two days later. I’ve been in saunas before and sauna heat is unlike any heat I’ve ever felt in the real world. There’s always a moment where my breath catches because it’s so freaking hot but I love the feeling of what is actually just “good, clean sweat.” I love feeling it run down my back in tiny rivers and I love not caring that it’s happening.

Once we felt ready, we returned to the main room with its four pools. This was when I realized we were actually in outer space. The room was dark with low ceilings (rare in Singapore) and walls covered in white tile shaped sort of like hot air balloons. The four pools were roughly oval-shaped and situated next to each other on a raised platform making an almost wave-like pattern along the floor. It was quiet except for the bubbling from jets under the water. There was murmured conversation that could hardly be heard. Weightlessly floating in the pool, watching naked women climbing in and out, I truly felt like I was somewhere secret, somewhere unearthly. That feeling stayed with me all evening.

The first two pools were 38-39°C and the third was half a degree warmer, hence the need for the sauna before entering the water. The water in each pool had a slightly different mineral or chemical formulation to mimic the effects of a hot spring. It was interesting to notice the effects of each type of water on the body. I noticed a tingling and then almost tangible sleekness as my skin got used to what was in each pool. That silky, tight, rejuvenated quality seemed to remain only until the next pool’s sensations washed it away.

The fourth pool was the cold bath, which was 17-18°C. It was shockingly cold. I couldn’t sit down in the pool the first time at all and could crouch down only as low as the tops of my thighs. The cold shower, however, was much easier, if for no other reason than I had just been in a very cold pool.

Feeling clean and refreshed, we dried off and changed into our kimonos to have dinner at the onsen’s Japanese restaurant. We walked down a wood-panelled hallway with elegant lighting placed so that you couldn’t quite see where it was coming from. Thick strips of dark curtain partially obscured any additional light sources from the locker rooms themselves, adding to the sense of wonder and mystery I felt. Again, I pointed out the odd sensation of being in outer space.

Although we didn’t spend any time there, my roommate also showed me the resting room, a darkened space with couches, chairs, and blankets reserved for reading, silent use of electronics, and quiet conversation. More curtains segmented, creating a calm and privacy almost like being in a pod (outer space again!), but far more open with easy access to other parts of the area around.

After dinner, we went through the rotation a second time, though much more quickly and with the addition of the face masks we had brought. This time, determined to prove that I was stronger than the cold bath, I jumped in as much as one can in a pool shallow enough to sit down in, and successfully submerged for a few seconds. Victory.

Throughout our time at the onsen, I’d been very interested in all the different bodies and their shapes, sizes, hair, or lack thereof. I consciously looked at everyone out of pure curiosity, with no element of voyeurism at all. While floating in the very first pool, a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou (though originally from the Roman poet Terence) came to mind for what might have been the first time: “I am human. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

What was strange, and I didn’t realize this until later, is that I was almost completely unaware of my own body. I’m very, very shy most of the time where my own body is concerned (as in, I have blushed at my own reflection in more than one dressing room and quickly discarded whatever I was trying to wear). I do think, however, that shyness is different from being self-conscious. I don’t care particularly what I look like but I do like my own privacy. That was utterly stripped away at the onsen and I didn’t even notice. So now I wonder if my shyness is more of a habit than anything else. I don’t have an answer, but will be exploring this new idea.

We spent a few hours at the onsen and I left with such a feeling of relaxation that it took some real effort to lie in bed and write about the day, which I try to do most nights. My skin felt clean and soft, my muscles loose and comfortable, and my mind calm and easy. I’m really glad we went and it was such a nice way to spend an evening. I highly recommend it.

Interested? Intrigued? Take a look. Let me know if you need a buddy.

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Pages of Intimacy

Reading
A friend was recently telling me about a book he was reading and we both agreed that the author (who is well-traveled, multilingual, knowledgeable, funny, and articulate) would be fun to spend time with in real life. In conversation, I expressed how nice it was to find a good “book friend” to spend time with regardless of real life.

Book friend.

That’s how I generally think about authors or even characters in novels. I love Haruki Murakami, for example, because he describes the world in ways that make it both bigger than it is and also so uncomfortably close and personal. Reading his books, I see my world through his eyes and I learn from it. I enjoy Robert Sapolsky because he’s funny and engaging, which is not always common practice for scientists writing for lay people. In the fiction world, Hermione Granger remains a favorite female protagonist for her unashamed love of books. Importantly for a book character, she rarely disappoints. If there’s a fact to find and a book to find it in, she will.

Book friends, unlike real people in unedited daily existence, are manufactured. They’re predictable, omniscient where appropriate, developed in a certain way to achieve certain ends. They weave bits of plot together into a neat story that is literally bound and sealed. And that’s what makes them safe. That’s what keeps me coming back to books I’ve read before, authors I’ve spent time with, characters I’ve learned to love or hate. Book friends are there to be heard and I’m here to listen.

Sharing
There’s a feeling of excitement when I read something that is just so perfectly, stunningly, eloquently true. There are passage from books that I highlight, write down, keep track of, and return to over and over. Often I find myself looking to share whatever I’ve just found with someone who will appreciate it as I do. I want to share why I’m so thrilled by what I’ve read or what makes me laugh or cry. I want to share what fills me with awe, dread, or horror. If I’ve learned something new, something that I think is important, I look for people to show it to because it’s too special to keep to myself.

I’m cautious, though, because I see sharing passages from books as an intimate action. I’m handing you a piece of my mind in the form of something that has stood out to me as beautiful, honest, and true. I’m telling you, “This resonates with me.” Sometimes, you haven’t seen that side of me. You didn’t know I was looking for those things, believed that, or had come to such understandings. And here I am, holding out something that excited me and hoping that you’ll accept it, meaning that you will also accept me and who I am, what makes me tick. And I am always hopeful that you’ll return my share with one of your own or with conversation about your own found truths, your own beauties.

But sometimes, the people we share with don’t respond in the ways that we hope they will. Sometimes we try again, we ask again that they take us for who we are. Sometimes they surprise us and they do. And other times, we learn to stop asking.

Breathing
I admit that I am cautious. I love talking about books and hearing what others are reading, but it takes time to feel comfortable enough sharing so much of myself with anyone else. I want to know you and I want you to know me. But I don’t want to overwhelm you. I don’t want to scare you away. Vulnerability is at the forefront in any interactions when we allow ourselves to be seen by others, but vulnerability comes with a balance. We cannot immediately demand that others see us, hear us, let us breathe. We need to give them time to decide that they want to engage in the same way.

We ask for a lot when we say, “These are the words that are meaningful to me and through them, you see my scars. These are the words that I find true, so I am fragile in showing them to you. And these, these are the words that are dark and unspoken and through them, you see what I keep hidden.”

Thought about like this, sharing books with others is intimate in a way that most shared activities are not. It’s a revealing of oneself, a taking off of clothes of sorts. We are unprotected and therefore vulnerable to whatever might be thrown at us. Sharing our inner lives with one another is an act of courage.

But now you know me. Now you see me. And hopefully, you let me see you.