Thursday, September 24, 2009

How I learned to take responsibility for my education

by Richard L. Weaver II

Throughout my educational career (20 years of formal, classroom experiences) I had outstanding — even extraordinary — teachers. I don’t know if I always recognized or appreciated it at the time (does anyone?), but in retrospect, there is no question about what happened to me. I do not take full responsibility for how it all happened, but I do remember a number of instances that assisted in making it happen. It is true that I was an open, available, and receptive vessel for all that took place. You could even label this open, available, receptivity as an eagerness for and commitment to learning.

What are the purposes for students taking responsibility for their education? When students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to develop higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation — skills I not only developed but skills, too, I put into full use as I became an assistant debate coach at Indiana University during my graduate years there (proof they were established), and in all my teaching that followed.

One element in the process of assuming responsibility for my education took place at home and supported, in full measure, that which took place at school. I had a comfortable, fully equipped, well lit, independent place to work. I have previously written about this in an essay entitled, “The link between homework and success” .

How did my study area contribute to fostering responsibility? It gave me a place to work at my own pace. It was a place (in addition to locations I found in the local libraries) I chose, I equipped, and I found comfortable. It put me in control of my learning outside of the classroom.

My teachers helped their students take responsibility, too, by encouraging group communication. Whether it was more formal group discussions in class, study groups outside of class, or work groups to solve a problem or complete a project, group interaction promoted the comfort of learning with my peers. Many group activities were project-based. I found group work valuable because I was a hard worker, enjoyed organizing group efforts, and often assumed leadership roles to make certain that organized and productive outcomes resulted.

Throughout my educational career and almost consistently in my classes from term-to-term, teachers not only gave homework — sometimes a great deal of homework — but focused, even in classroom activities and assignments, on independent work and thinking. I was thorough in my homework efforts knowing that very often teachers would ask me to think out answers to questions or challenge my thinking in class based on the foundation supplied by my homework.
in the beginning I believed it was teachers who were responsible for my learning.

I think it was during my junior-high school years, although I wish I could remember exactly when, where, and how the change took place since it is such an important one, that I discovered that the person in charge of my education was me. I could learn, or I could not learn! I was in control of my education, and if I wanted to add to my information, increase my knowledge, and expand my horizons, it was entirely up to me not my teachers.

In some cases the motivation for and desire to learn in any particular classroom was subtle. There were a variety of subtle influences. The way teachers decorated their rooms with such a wide array of stimuli: attractive pictures, slogans, lists, and posters. There were always books, pull-down charts, and chalkboards — and always bright colors and interesting and arresting designs. Teachers, too, made use of their stimuli as tools and influences.

But the influences were not always subtle. No need to be with kids. Teachers would explain to us why it was important for us to learn, how the material we were learning related not just to what we already knew, but how it related to the outside world — what we knew and could understand in our homes and communities — as well as how it related to the personal world of the teachers themselves. They personalized the information for us, and it made us understand and remember it because of the student-friendly language and examples as well as their frequent and timely feedback to our applications, explanations, and understandings.

Although it was difficult to perceive at the time, it is certainly clear in retrospect, that teachers introduced activities and tasks that gradually increased in difficulty and complexity. This was especially clear in my math and science courses, but I noticed it, too, in all my classes. I never realized how much I had gained or how far I had come until I would enter a class clearly designed to follow a prior one. I never felt unprepared for a “next-level” class — even throughout my four years of a foreign language in high school.

One thing I learned from all my teachers — as clear and obvious models of good teaching — and was able to utilize in my own teaching, was the need to make my personal expectations, goals, learning outcomes, and course requirements clear at the beginning of each of the courses I taught. I became better and better at it — and polished and honed my course material — as I grew and developed as a teacher. (My three years as a graduate teaching assistant (T.A.) at Indiana University contributed significantly to my development of course material because it gave me time to experiment and change.) I always knew what was expected of me in the classes I taught, and I wanted to do the same for the students in my classes. Some teachers even had me sign learning contracts. These are ways I began to take responsibility for my own learning.

Another facet of my learning — known only in retrospect — was the clarity of course objectives. I have always appreciated knowing the goals: for what was I working? Where is this course headed? What was I trying to accomplish? The teachers I had not only made their objectives known, but they were clear, too, when objectives were achieved. This was important not just to my development but to my learning as well. Providing objectives became a necessity not just in the courses I later taught, but it was essential in the numerous textbooks I wrote as well. In my science courses, many activities were open-ended or problem-based and, thus, demanded me to think and behave based on my own resources — an incredible incentive to responsibility and independent learning.

An important incentive for me throughout my education (and comfortable partly because they were started early and offered often) were the in-class quizzes, minute papers, brief in-class reports, learning logs, and reflective journals designed to test whether I had learned independently.

Now you may better understand why I am so appreciative of my education. All the skills I developed were valuable, however, those specifically designed to develop responsibility were important because I consider those the ones that most directly influenced my desire to continue learning, never to stop learning, and — most important of all — to assist others in their learning.

At The Creative Career, there is a delightful essay by Allie Osmar, “Students, Take Responsibility for Your Own Education,” in which she offers readers numerous, helpful, and explanatory embedded links. Osmar uses a personal example to make the point and the thesis is: “Your college degree is not a free ticket to a valuable career.”

At InternetBusinessMastery, there is an essay by Sterling (Jeremy Frandsen), “Take Responsibility for Your Learning,” that offers one more personal example of how important it is. Frandsen makes the important point: “Please, for your own sake, don’t fall into the trap of blaming others for your lack of knowledge, success, wealth, etc. Once you take responsibility for your own learning and realize it is going to be a journey and not a destination. Only then can the real ‘magic’ happen.”


Copyright September, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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