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Learning Theory, a Blog for Students, #1: Writing 1–3 Takeaways

(NOTE: I spent the last three years as a full-time secondary educator and am now returning to life as a student. Much of standard “Education Theory” is about how teachers, administrators, and policy makers can help students. These “Learning Theory” blogs will be pieces about how students can help themselves, and work smarter instead of harder. Intended for grades 9+.)

My teacher fantasy: Every student is 100% engaged. They write down and commit to memory every bit of knowledge that comes from my mouth, is written on the board, or distributed in handouts. The pearls of wisdom gleaned over a semester number in the thousands their lives are rendered forever changed…

Ha. Wrong.

If teachers are “firing” knowledge at the long-term memory part of student brains they’d be as accurate as Star Wars stormtroopers (allegedly around five percent, and that’d be a great teaching day). We all know this is true. If I asked you what you remember from such-and-such class years ago, it’s next to nothing. And it’s nobody’s fault! Educators, administrators, and policy makers have adjusted to a more skills-based approach in part to accommodate this truth of human psychology. And students…well, students do nothing.

Learning Theory: Practical solutions for students to work smarter instead of harder (source: ICE Blog)

Part of why I’m writing Learning Theory is Education Theory often treats students like mythical creatures that teachers must trick into engagement, or robots that will learn if their buttons are pressed in the right order. Education Theory is largely written by teachers, administrators, and policy makers, for teachers, administrators, and policy makers. Students are employed too passively in their own education if they’re employed at all. They should be given a little more say in their success.

Learning Theory believes students deserve practical theory of their own, too. While a student’s success can be profoundly influenced by conditions like gender, sex, race, socioeconomic status, and parental engagement, these pieces will acknowledge students can also act for themselves and succeed or fail of their own accord. When a student fails and the only question asked is what the teacher could have done better, it’s insulting to students and their agency over their own habits and behavior.

My classes start this week and I’ll have more to add once I’m back in student mode, but here’s something I’ll be doing every time: write down 1–3 takeaways before the bell.

“What did we do last class?” (source: Medium)

A “takeaway,” is a short phrase or sentence that describes something important you learned from that class. You can write it in its own section of your notebook (my strategy) or anywhere it’ll stay with you, and should take no more than a minute. Three takeaways are no better than one or two, but three is the max. Then you can bolt to your next class or, if you’re me, run up a sizable coffee and scone bill at the nearest available vendor.

The why is pretty simple: humans have a tough time remembering exact details, and writing takeaways helps.

According to Daniel J. Levitin in his excellent book The Organized Mind, in 2011 Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986. It took millions of years for our ape ancestors to figure out walking on two legs, so no, we are not biologically capable of storing a day’s onslaught of information in 2018. The idea that our world is too chaotic to remember isn’t even new. Educational powerhouse John Dewey wrote, “we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience” in the 1930’s, when college kids could pick up each other by saying, “hey, come back to my place, you have to check out my new RADIO.”

(source: Talking About Thinking)

Don’t spend hours and hours trying to memorize your notes every night. If you take a minute to reflect every class, you’ll retain more information and need to study less. Good educators often post Learning Targets which let you know what should be a takeaway, but remember to personalize them to your own interests, too.

Some educators already use an end-of-class reflection, known as a “strong close” among teachers, yet there isn’t always time. Make time. Do it for yourself. Takeaways will stay with you, and their written record is evidence the class changed your life in some small way. And if that’s not good education, I don’t know what is.