my philosophy

Fishing for an analogy to learning

I’m trying to get my head around framing important principles involved in teaching and education/learning, specifically in technology and computational fluency at the K-12 level. To frame such a big subject, I came up with the following analogy:

Imagine that we’re standing in the middle of a rapidly flowing stream in which different types and sizes of fish are swimming around us. Our job is to figure out which type(s) of fish we want to catch, and then do it.

The fish represent learning opportunities, which I believe are flowing around and past us almost continuously. We have to decide not only where the best opportunities lie for fishing, but also how to direct our most effective efforts.

A few things immediately come to mind:

  • Selecting the right environment (stream) and time of day,
  • Determining what we reasonably can fish for at our selected spot (what are risks/rewards for targeting different size or strength fish),
  • Identifying the tools we have available to use,
  • Teaching students (or teaching ourselves) processes and techniques,
  • Assessing results based on performance goals, not ideals.

The first choice we have to make each day, however, is none of these — it is how badly we really want to go fishing. This is similar to deciding what our motivation is for learning anything at all. Why are we motivated (or students motivated) to learn about whatever topic(s)? If we haven’t identified the students’ motivation clearly, it is easy to get started along a wasteful, worthless, or, even worse, damaging pursuit. Of course each student’s motivation also may not be the same.

This is a showstopper point worth repeating: the number one factor in learning is motivation. I remember Michael Allen presenting this many years ago in regards to eLearning, though it really applies to any type of learning. Our motivation directs us to figure out which stream we want to visit for fishing. Of course a variety of factors determine which streams are accessible, given whatever effort we wish to make.

Once we’ve provided a sufficient motivation for action, we can begin to consider and plan the next factors:

  • Selecting the right environment at the right time. The educator is responsible for putting the student in the right environment/stream for what he or she is motivated to learn, or helping develop the student’s motivation for what the educator feels is important. The student being in the wrong environment or in the right environment but the fish have all gone to sleep, is, in Elton John’s words, “trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine.”
  • Setting realistic and meaningful learning goals. The fish in the stream passing beneath us aren’t all the same — there are big ones, small ones, and different shapes and species. Those are analogous to different subjects, themes, etc. Also, which fish we choose to aim for (via bait, positioning, or technique) means we have to forego the opportunity to catch other fish that pass by, since we don’t have an unlimited amount of time.
  • Identifying tools.  What means do the students have to be able to catch the target fish that has been selected? How can we provide sufficient tools, or direct the student to acquire them?
  • The educator’s role. As educators and parents, once we can clarify a sufficient motivation, we can begin to address how to dissect the other issues and components, for example, not only to equip students with tools, but also to help hone and develop their discernment and capture abilities.
  • Assessing results based on performance goals. Assessment is a critical piece of the learning process. What does the student have to demonstrate, that we can measure? I believe that learning starts with determining realistic assessment metrics, rather than the other way around: develop the training material and afterwards, slap on a test. One might argue that this approach is ‘teaching to the test’, but that only is a disadvantage if the test is not a true assessment of proficiency. We have to set the bar regarding assessments we make so that we are testing proficiency in the skill, not just pure recall (unless the skill is simply recalling facts!).

Somewhere in here I’d like to also argue for the value of guided discovery in this process, but that will be for another day. Perhaps you can come up with other factors for consideration, or want to poke holes in the fishing analogy?

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