The Process of Learning

This week during their study hall periods, the fifth graders at MCDS have been learning about  how to have productive discussions. Led by Mr. Stenroos and Mrs. Kendrick, students have focused on roles in a discussion, levels of engagement, how and when to speak, using hand signals instead of interrupting, questioning techniques, conversation starters, and synthesis showing how thinking might have changed through the course of a discussion.

Our eighth graders, meanwhile, pondered whether the 1920’s were a time of celebration or despair through readings and discussions. The students debated with each other, took notes, and formed an opinion based on what they learned. Mrs. Rempe prompted and questioned as the students struggled to their final analysis.

I am continually delighted to work in a school where the focus is on the process of learning. Teachers do not stand in the front of the room and impart their encyclopaedic wisdom to the students; rather, they prompt and cajole and engage the students in asking questions, pondering answers, and taking risks. Students, in turn, do the same with each other. They are encouraged to ask each other questions, to take an impromptu turn in the discussion when needed, and to use their resources to dig for more information.

MCDS teachers spent the last year fully articulating what they teach each year and in each unit. As one might imagine, this is a daunting task made more so by the fact that there are multiple variables in each unit that hamper full articulation (e.g., environment, adolescence, health, etc.). Curriculum design has historically been based on a vast amount of knowledge that had to be learned, remembered, and tested. This may, in fact, be how many of the parents of current MCDS students learned. (I well remember my history classes being almost solely comprised of taking notes off an overhead projector, reading a chapter in a textbook, taking a test, and then moving on to the next chapter.) Our next step at MCDS is to take the what and articulate the how and the why.

At MCDS, there is absolutely content to be learned. Beyond the content, however, are core competencies that are harder to see and measure each day. It is critical that our students are able to collaborate, think and question, manage and understand themselves, communicate, and be culturally aware. This is why units like “how to have a productive discussion” are explicitly taught in fifth grade. This is why our students are encouraged to take agency through science fair projects. This is how our eighth graders are able to have a debate about whether the 1920’s were a time of celebration or despair. This is why it is okay for students to fail; competency does not come through negating adversity, but rather through learning from and overcoming obstacles and challenges. Ultimately, this focus on competencies and the process of learning is why this school is what it is, and why our graduates are who they are (in short, amazing).

We take the responsibility of educating our students seriously. We want them to graduate from MCDS able to take care of themselves and aware of their place in the world. Able to think. Able to communicate. Able to apply concepts they have learned to a wide range of contexts. Able to take agency over their own behavior and learning. These are essential competencies that extend beyond the basic content of any one unit. Both content and competencies are incredibly important; we are unable to focus on only one. However, the biggest difference we can make for the learners in our classroom each day lies not in what we tell them, but rather from the questions we ask them. At MCDS, we ask a lot of questions. We push our students to think, to connect, and to communicate. MCDS faculty are preparing our students for the demands of an unpredictable future, and I am grateful to be part of that process.

—Devon Davis, Head of Middle School

Leave a Reply