Volume:2, Issue: 3

Nov. 1, 2010

The Elementary School Experience and Principles of Learning
Ellis, Arthur K. [about] , Scheuerman, Richard D. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: principles of learning, learning by doing, children’s wish to learn, natural tendencies of childhood, promoting a love of learning, student reflection, social experience in childhood.
SYNOPSIS: the authors introduce and describe five important principles of learning. They also show that if elementary school teachers accept and use these principles, then they can expect high academic results and other improvements in the social/moral fabric of their classrooms. This will also help to promote a love of learning.

The Elementary School Experience and Principles of Learning

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them,
we learn by doing them.”

Please take a moment to reflect on Aristotle’s insight. What does he mean? Do you agree with him? What is he saying about a principle of learning?  How would his statement relate to learning to ride a bicycle?  How would it relate to learning to read?

Learning by Doing
Aristotle seems to be saying that in order to learn to ride a bicycle, you must ride a bicycle. In other words, advice and encouragement may help to a certain extent, but unless you get on the bicycle and attempt to ride it, you will never be a cyclist. He is saying the same thing about learning to read. You have to read in order to learn to read. And by implication, you have to read good literature in order to learn to read well.

The principle is that activity is essential to learning, whether the activity is physical, intellectual, or social. With children the best teaching and learning occurs when all three are found together.  For example, we expect children to treat each other civilly in classroom settings, but unless they are given opportunities to experience civil behavior toward one another, they will not improve their citizenship skills. Unless they experience elements of democracy they will never understand it. It is a commonplace that physical activity is essential to physical development, but it is also true that without academic challenges children will not improve their intellectual skills.

Thus we have established a principle of learning, one that Aristotle and a number of educators since his time have called learning by doing.  Children do not learn in order to do; rather, they do in order to learn. This principle is so simple that many teachers never grasp it. It is so obvious that it is often ignored. The psychologist Jerome Bruner (1996) uses the term “enactive learning” for hands-on experiential learning. His claim is that all too often symbolic representation in the form of abstract words is given prominence in school life. Even those children who are “good” readers may not have much grasp of the realities of what they read. Mark Twain once observed that if you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way. Behind this absurd image of a person learning the hard way lies a profound educational insight. Quality experiences are essential to childhood learning if for no other reason than that children have not had much experience. Almost everything is new to them.

Children Want to Learn

A second principle is that children genuinely want to learn. Dewey cites four attributes or “natural tendencies” of childhood. They are: 1) children are naturally curious; they want to know how things work, and how their world is organized.  In short, they are natural investigators.  Secondly, children want to make things, to build and construct; one could say they are natural constructivists.  Third, Dewey suggests, children want to talk; they learn through speech, their own as well as that of others. And fourth, children want to express themselves artistically; they want to paint, draw, sculpt, dance, sing, and play. 
To the extent that teachers accept the four simple ideas represented in this second principle of learning they begin to see that learners are on their side. Current brain science research (Medina, 2010) informs us that children should be in motion; they should be physically active, exploring their environment. Far too much of the school day is spent doing seatwork. As curriculum researcher John Goodlad (1984, 2004) lamented, “Students go to school to learn alone in groups.”  Such irony. Take a moment to re-read the four natural tendencies listed above. Think of these tendencies as gifts to you, the teacher, from your students. The most beautiful circumstances are realized when a teacher him/herself understands the power of these instincts.

Learning over Teaching

A third principle of childhood learning is that teaching is a means, and learning is an end. It is easy to forget in the busy world of lesson plans, instruction, exams, and report cards that learning is the purpose of school. We can ask ourselves the question, “What is good teaching?” The answer is that good teaching is that which results in good learning. That means that teaching should be strategic, that is, oriented toward large outcomes such as promoting a love of learning and improving the social/moral fabric of school life.

Saundra, an intermediate grade teacher with whom we had an opportunity to work, is herself a person who loves to read. She loves good literature and wanted to pass that love along to her students. Together we came up with a scheme for promoting the reading of good books by her students. On the first day of school in September she told the class she had a challenge for them. She asked the students whether they thought the class, including the teacher, could read a total of 1000 books over the course of the school year. The students were immediately interested in the challenge and stated overwhelmingly that they would like to try. Discussions ensued over whether it would count as one or two books if two different students read the same book. It was resolved that this would mean two books because every time someone reads a given book it is a different experience. This decision represented a small but intriguing moral question that the students resolved themselves.  Another question arose over the size of the books read. Should a small, “easy” book count as much as a big “hard” book? Finally, the students decided, “yes,” because each person pledged to read up to his/her ability.  These children were displaying the wisdom of Solomon, mainly because they had a real problem to solve, not an artificial problem found in a text.

The result was splendid. The class actually achieved the goal in April, two months before the school year was over. They held a party to celebrate their achievement. Parents were saying that their children were watching less television because they were so busy reading, so busy learning. During the year students were recommending books they’d read to others, including fellow students and family members.  Because this teacher had a genuine love of reading, and because she gave the class a real problem solving challenge, students not only rose to the occasion, they probably were set on the road to becoming lifelong readers.

The economist Peter Drucker (1994) wrote that schools would never improve until they cross the frontier from teaching to learning as the teacher you just read about did. The best teachers model learning. They talk about the books they read, the activities in which they are engaged, the new things they are learning. Children look to teachers as models, more than we know. This is both a humbling and daunting responsibility.

Student Reflection

A fourth principle of childhood learning is that reflection is essential. Eva Brann (1979) has written that a teacher’s first task is not planning, but reflection. Her point is that teachers must take time to consider the worth of what they are doing before plowing ahead, to think seriously about what really matters. And just as an adult teacher must reflect in order to grow, so must children.  An experimental study including random assignment of students and teachers to groups carried out by Bond and Ellis (2011) contrasted the mathematics learning of children who studied a unit in probability and statistics with reflective thinking built into each lesson with children who studied the same unit but who closed each lesson with typical guided practice. The groups that practiced five minutes of reflection at the end of each lesson achieved statistically significant higher scores on a final test and also on a retention test administered eight weeks later.

But reflection is about more than academic learning. It is also a means of giving careful thought to what is useful, enjoyable, and empowering about classroom life. Reflective classrooms are places where the academic mission of the school merges with the social/moral fabric of school life. It is the case that students can have experience without reflection (it happens all the time), but they cannot have reflection without experience. And the quality of the experience leads naturally to the quality of the reflection.

Social Experience

Finally, a fifth principle of childhood learning is that it should be social. This is hardly a novel idea. John Dewey wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demand of the social situation in which he finds himself” (1897, p. 97). Dewey went on to state that the school is primarily a social institution because education is a social process. The teacher who gave her students the reading challenge recognized that if the class thought and acted as a team, conversations, recommendations, friendships, and other social outcomes would result. 

Childhood is a time to learn the rudiments of life in a democratic society. To the extent that classrooms and schools are places where the young routinely make group decisions, where they play and work together, where they learn to cooperate as well as to compete, and where they participate in transcendent experiences that can come about only through the esprit de corps that develops in healthy team situations, they actually live what they need to learn.

Elementary age students are building the foundations of their adult lives. Who they are and who they will become is set in motion in childhood. They prosper and go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives to the extent that they are nurtured with kindness and respect during their formative years, to the extent that they are challenged to learn and teach others, and to the extent that they experience freedom and opportunity over restraint and coercion.

Bond, J. and Ellis, A. (2011). “The Effects of Reflective Assessment on Student Learning in Mathematics.” accepted for publication by The Journal of School Science and Mathematics.
Brann, E. (1979). Paradoxes of Education in a Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dewey, J. (1897). “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, vol. 54, January, pp. 77-80.
Drucker, P. (1994). “The Age of Social Transformation. The Atlantic Monthly, November, pp. 53-80.
Goodlad, J. (1984, 2004). A Place Called School. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Medina, J. (2010). Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

1 Dr. Ellis, Arthur K., Professor, Director, Center for Global Curriculum Studies, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA. Dr. Scheuerman, Richard D., Chair, Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT); Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA.



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