Learning to Learn

One of the favorite parts of my job as Head of School at North Shore is slipping out of my office and walking around classes to gain perspective. It’s easy to get immersed in the day-to-day, a never-ending to-do list, phone calls, meetings with faculty, staff and parents.  So when I steal away, I head for the classrooms.

I’ve noticed a trend recently as I’ve gone on walkabout.  In each division, I’ve found interesting, intentional discussions and presentations about learning. Not just learning content or basic information—that’s on every wall of every school classroom—but learning how to learn. This is something our teachers teach every day but it is not necessarily something that non-educators often think about. The quality and frequency of this training is something that makes North Shore stand out.

How did you learn to ask a good question? To take notes? To observe closely? To listen for understanding? Maybe you remember a specific lesson; more likely you just picked it up along the way from your teachers or classes or peers, absorbing different tidbits and creating your own methods. Most of us probably learned how to “do school” this way.  As the science and craft of teaching has evolved in recent years, and as we’ve learned more about how students learn best, we in schools spend more and more time attending to this crucial part of our jobs.

In an Upper School math class, I found the results of a classroom collaboration where the students shared their own observations. The two questions, pasted onto the wall on large sheets of paper asked, “What traits does an effective student/teacher/teammate have?” and  “What traits does an ineffective student/teacher/teammate have?” Students were prompted to give their own answers, and they were insightful.

Undoubtedly, discussion ensued and advice was given. The evidence was all over those giant post-it pages. Obviously, the teacher created this exercise, but I would bet that the answers might have gotten a little more credence with the student audience because the feedback came from their own peers. There is some good advice on these pages.

Walking over to the Middle School science classroom I found a poster about what “Active Listeners” do. The skills listed here are universally important but I don’t recall anyone ever teaching them to me explicitly. Presenting such advice (and posting a reminder) works to build an interactive and mutually beneficial classroom dynamic.  Exploring (like any good scientist) in the same room, I encountered another teaching tool designed to foster the same goal. At every lab workspace, taped to the table, was a guide for “Sharing and Building on Each Others’ Ideas.” Take a look at that handout and consider what conversations—in and out of the classroom—would look like if people took the time and care to engage in this way. There are multiple, crucial skills engaged in a rubric like this one.

In the Lower School, I found reminders about kindness and respect, and
instructions on how to be a good mathematician, writer and scientist. I was most struck, however, by a chart reminding students about the importance 
of a positive outlook. The research on this topic, particularly Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on the “growth mindset,” is powerful and growing, and illuminates that skills are not the only important part of becoming an effective student. Imagine if all of our Lower Schoolers absorbed the concept that a setback, even a failure, can be a powerful agent of learning and growth.

And lastly, circling back through the Atrium on may way back to the office, in big bold letters on the wall of the Advanced Open Research Classroom, I read “Did you ask a ‘non-Googleable’ question today?” These are the questions that don’t have simple factual answers but demand multiple steps of synthesis and interpretation. Isn’t that our goal in the end—that all of these building blocks combine to form nuanced, critical thinkers?

Each of these prompts work to intentionally develop the skills that define independent thinkers and curious investigators. Listening is one of the primary modes of knowledge acquisition. Asking good questions can be at the root of deep learning. At a very early age, young children start asking, “Why?” From there, we can layer on additional skills that foster exchange and provoke thought. Over time, they become lifelong habits and promote intellectual engagement.

Last week on my way home from school, I met the grandmother of a North Shore graduate, class of 2016. She reported that her granddaughter was loving college, but more importantly, that she was finding the work “easy.” She was exceptionally well-prepared, this woman explained to me, and very thankful for her North Shore education. No doubt these types of lessons helped her learn how to learn, and those are some of the most important, transferable skills, we can help our students develop.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

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