Tips for creating a desire to learn

My wife and I just returned from a 10 day guided tour of Venice, Florence and Rome. In addition to experiencing incredible works of art, delicious food and a wonderful culture, I also felt what it was like to be a student again because the quality of our experience rested so much in the hands of our tour guide. So I learned a lot about Italy, but I also learned a lot about learning. The tour created wonderful memories, and more importantly, it generated a desire to learn more about where we had been and where we could go in the future. The ingredients that made our tour so successful are the same ones that can produce the similar results in the classroom for every student.

Here are the key ingredients:

Guide/teacher enthusiasm: Our guide was a native of Italy and had a passion for his country. This passion was integrated with his knowledge, so he created the lens and the context for how we experienced everything on the tour. The best teachers realize that all learning is social; that everything they say and do becomes the lens through which their students experience the content of what they teach. Great teachers create anticipation and invite reflection that deepens the learning experience.

Connections: There were 28 people on our tour who were strangers to each other. Our basic connection was that we were in an unfamiliar place that we chose to explore. We quickly discovered many commonalities that became the foundation for positive relationships. As we trusted each other more, we had deeper conversations about what we experienced together. Likewise, teachers who invest having students discover commonalities and connections create the optimal conditions for learning.

Navigation tools: Before setting out for any destination, our guide made sure we could locate it on our maps. He also gave use key landmarks to use in case we got lost or confused. He made sure we had his phone number and the hotel's phone number in case of an emergency. We learned how to use the metro system and even the Italian way to cross a street. A good teacher maps out the lesson for the students right from the start. Students know where they are, where they are going and why they going there. They also know ahead of time what to do if run into problems.

Fun:  Our guide helped us relax enough to enjoy the times when we didn't know what to do or didn't understand the language. It was an essential part of the journey.  A teacher, I know, passes out erasers at the start of the school year and tells her students, "mistakes are how we learn" and that "problems are how we grow." Removing fear from learning allows the fun to emerge.

Assuming the best in people: Our guide treated us with respect and assumed we would respect each other by arriving on time and listening when it was time to listen. Not surprisingly, everyone on the tour did so. When teachers assume that their students want to learn, they project that identity unto them and students respond accordingly. When we cooperated, it was out of respect to each other not out of fearing our tour guide. Great teachers know that social norms guide behavior not rewards or consequences; they guide their students to influence each other in the right direction.

Balance of planned and choice time:  Our group had to do some things together at certain times, but we also had an equal amount of time to explore sights on our own or to just relax and rest. This balance helped us take care of ourselves based on our own needs and wants. Effective teachers don't cram or force learning on students. When students are given choices they have less reason to fight or resist times when they have no choice. This balance of activity and rest, choice and mandatory also makes the day flow more easily for everyone involved.

Building social capital:  We were on the tour just two weeks before the US election, but surprisingly I heard zero conversations about it. It was like there was a tacit agreement among all of us not to detract from our bonding by bringing up a topic that could cause divisiveness. We wanted the polarization that we had left at home (and that would be there when we returned) to stay there and not come to Italy with us. Ironically, I believe that after 10 days together we could have had these discussions because we viewed each other as good and decent people who happen to disagree on some issues. 

Good teachers know that the classroom should be a microcosm of democracy where diversity is an asset not a liability. They know that a sense of community does not require agreement but ultimately thrives when people can respectfully disagree while opening their minds and perspective beyond their own opinions. Good teachers never forget the mission of schools is to promote citizenship and ultimately our democracy.

Although polarization creates more excitement and interest, deep down I believe people want and need connection and to get along. As our students experience community in their classrooms they will know it is possible and will seek to find it and promote it in the world outside of school. The best teachers make learning a shared journey and an adventure that prepares students for making more and more journeys.

When we arrived home and turned on our TV to watch the remaining days of the election unfold, we silently wished somehow that our entire country could have taken a trip to Italy to prepare for days after the election.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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