Friday, March 25, 2011

Can learning happen without the learner knowing it?

I spent most of last Friday on a tour of Thanksgiving Point with a group of fellow graduate students who are working with Thanksgiving Point management on a project I have blogged about in a previous post.   We visited each of the three main venues at Thanksgiving Point and at each venue our tour was facilitated by the director of that particular museum or attraction.  Among other things, they oriented us to their venue, helped us understand the guest experience, and showcased exhibits or features they felt were particular noteworthy.  One of the directors, while taking us through his space, repeatedly made the comment that "kids are learning here, they just don't know it."  After hearing that statement three or four times in a matter of an hour, I started to wonder what that might mean.  And, it highlighted for me the fact that we frequently assume that learning is occurring without any real evidence that it is.  The TP manager we spoke with assumed that kids, parents, and other guests were learning while participating in the museum experience his venue provides, but it was just that--an assumption. 

In the title of this post I posed a question--can someone learn without knowing it?  I think the answer to that question probably depends on how a person defines "learning."  But, I'm willing to concede that "unconscious learning" might happen in some cases (e.g. The gradual process of becoming a more skilled artist or musician or the familiarity with a new neighborhood that comes over time).  But, the larger issue here is how much more meaningful learning is when the learner recognizes that it is happening.  And, helping learners see they have learned, seems like an important function for educators and educational environments to play.  This could happen in any number of ways, but here are a few

1.  Clearly articulate what you hope will be learned.  Sometimes just alerting learners to what it is they should or could be learning, helps them recognize it when it happens.  The old adage, "you see what you're looking for" applies here.

2.  Ask them to reflect at key points in the experience.  Ask learners what they are learning and how they are learning it.  This could happen at just about any point in the learning process, but beginnings and endings present nice opportunities for reflection.  What's more comparing these sorts of pre-post reflections reveals to learners how they have changed and provides an opportunity for them to identify how to replicate the learning process on their own.  

3.  Celebrate learning.  Provide opportunities for learners to demonstrate, share, highlight, or reveal what they have learned.  Not only do these sorts of activities deepen learning for individual learners, they communicate to the larger community of learners (a class, a school, an organization) what type of learning the community values.

4.  Provide opportunities for learners to teach one another.  Nothing lets us know how well we know something like trying to teach it to someone else.  And, the process of articulating knowledge not only reveals what a learner does and doesn't know, it deepens understanding and raises new questions that facilitate additional learning.

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