Symbiotic Learning

I was leading a workshop a few weeks ago on literacy, and the topic of experts came up. One of the teachers in the course explained that she has a terribly difficult time standing in front of students leading a learning experience to which she doesn't know all the answers. Later that evening, I took the conversation home with me and shared it with my wife, a fourth grade teacher. I then took it with me to work the next day and shared it with a few other colleagues.

And I came to the conclusion that being a transparent, lead learner in a classroom is an incredibly difficult construct for many teachers to embrace. It's difficult, in my estimation and observation, because teachers feel compelled to be able to help students when they need it, and teachers often perceive help as being the provision of answers. If a student asks a question, clearly he or she is in need of an answer, so the teacher wants to do what appears the most helpful- provide the needed answer. The problem is, always offering the answer might not be the help a student actually needs.

I'm the father of a seven month old baby boy. I can tell you, one of the most difficult things I've encountered as a parent is the idea that sometimes the greatest way to help my son is to not help him. He will reach for a toy, and I'll find my immediate instinct is to reach out and move the toy within his reach. The problem is by so doing, I actually keep him from developing and growing and learning how to move independently. It's that way in our classrooms as well.

Sometimes we have to fight our natural instinct and let the students reach for the learning themselves.

One of the most immediate places this is evidenced for many teachers is when it comes to lessons that are potentially rich with technology. When discussing this with the teachers I was leading in the workshop, many said they feel they can't allow students to learn using a technology they as a teacher don't know exactly how to work. This is where I think symbiotic learning can potentially be at its best. To be more accurate, I should probably call it mutualistic learning as both sides can benefit greatly from the relationship.

Let the students learn something new, and by so doing, they can become the teacher to the teacher.

Do I think teachers should stumble blindly into lessons using technology hoping that the technology will inherently lead to learning? Absolutely not. I believe teachers must have a solid grasp of the pedagogical purpose for a lesson. Teachers should understand why the learning is going to take place, but they shouldn't let the actual execution of the technology prevent them from trying a lesson with their students.

It's difficult, but if a teacher can stand in front of a class of students and admit that he or she is learning with the students, I firmly believe something quite profound can take place. The teacher can become an authentic, transparent learner right in front of the student's eyes. The teacher has the potential to model the learning process in a way that affords students the opportunity to engage learning in a potentially powerful fashion. Again, the teacher understands entirely why the lesson is taking place, but the how is left up to the students.

It requires a relinquishing of control. That is incredibly difficult for many teachers. But I believe it is necessary.

I would encourage you, the next time you want to offer students a learning experience using a technology you don't know every answer to, don't do the reaching. Step aside and let the students reach and stretch and grow on their own. You might be amazed at how far they can actually reach, and you might just feel yourself moving with them along the way.