Education Teacher Leaders Network

Is There a Formula for Learning?

By John Norton — May 13, 2009 6 min read
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In the Teacher Leaders Network discussion forum, science teacher and professional development author Anne Jolly posed this puzzle:

I’m reading a book by E.O. Wilson called The Creation, and I loved this comment he made:

The basic ingredient for a love of learning is the same as for romantic love, or love of country, or of God: passion for a particular subject. Knowledge accompanied by pleasurable emotion stays with us.

It jumps to the surface and, when summoned, triggers other memory linkages to create metaphor, the cutting edge of creative thought.

Rote learning, in contrast, fades quickly into a jumble of words, facts, and anecdotes. The Holy Grail of liberal education is the formula by which passion can be systematically expanded for both science and the humanities, hence for the best in culture.

So now I wonder . . .

If “K” = Knowledge, and “P” = Pleasurable emotion, and “L” = Learning, then how do we put the formula K + P = L into operation with our students? What creates “P?”

Jon added more ingredients to the “algorithm for learning":

Being a math teacher, I’m intrigued by your formula. The first thought that comes to mind is mentioned by the author: passion. To spark our students’ passion, a teacher must display passion for the topic at hand, passion for those under their care, and passion for the profession. I am a firm believer that the passion or “fire” can be transmitted, and teachers are responsible for striking the match.

In other conversations, we’ve discussed movies about teachers. The educators portrayed in our favorite teaching movies cared deeply for their work and for their kids. In the book Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, author/educator Rafe Esquith inspires his students in an at-risk school to accept the challenges they face and become passionate about the process of learning. From what I can tell, he is having great success.

My other thought has to do with life-long learning. Those of us who continue to question, continue to be curious, and continue to learn more are setting the stage for our students to do the same. By our willingness to take risks, to admit we still have much to learn, we act as role models for our students within a caring and safe environment.

So I would add to your algorithm a teacher’s quest for knowledge and commitment to students.

Anne replied:

Certainly it’s difficult for students to get “turned on” by an apathetic teacher. The teacher is the ignition point for a lot of students. In my own school experience, I wound up simply enduring science classes in junior high and high school because of teachers who weren’t interested in teaching, or knew how to do nothing except have students take turns reading sections of the book aloud and then answering questions at the end of the chapter. My freshman year in college I had a dynamite biology teacher, and I was amazed by what science really is and involves. I wound up majoring in biology, taking chemistry, and loving the field of study. I still do.

Elizabeth reflected on “teaching for a lifetime":

Hi Anne, I have a few quick responses to your post. For starters, it reminded me of the quote that goes something like this: Years from now, a child may not remember what you taught him—but he will remember how you made him feel. I believe the teacher can play a significant role in the “P” factor. Best practices such as differentiating instruction based on student interest can go a long way toward creating pleasurable emotions within the learning process. We engage students by beginning where they are and then inspiring them to want to learn more, do more, and ultimately to be more. Also, when teachers are sensitive to the learning styles of the students and present material in a variety of ways, they are sure to increase the “P” factor for many more students than they would otherwise.

I do believe there are other factors when considering how to make the formula work. In addition to having instructional and academic roles, there are times when the teacher must play the emotional supporter role as well.

Ariel contrasted student passion and teacher passion:

I would agree with everything you are all saying. I would add that I’ve seen some teachers mistake their own passion for content for their students’ passion. We’ve probably all been guilty of this at one point or another. A teacher must be passionate about helping students discover their own curiosity, interests, and thinking, which may be distinct from the teacher’s own personal interests.

As a middle school English teacher, I know that my tastes in literature do not always line up with those of my students for many reasons—most significantly our developmental differences. That said, I try to find joy in my students’ diverse interests and their responses to different literary works. A teacher must be someone who can appreciate the perspectives of others and find a way to relate to a wide range of student passions.

I do consider myself someone with a wide range of interests, which helps me facilitate the development of most of my students. Now and then there’s a student whose passion I have a little trouble understanding, but it’s pretty rare. I wonder if most teachers would say they have a wide range of interests?

Ken offered his take on responsiveness:

The need to be responsive to student interests is why there has to be room for the questions that come up in your classroom, even if they are not part of the content you are (in theory) supposed to cover that day. It is why I think scripted lessons are among the stupidest things of which I have heard.

Sometimes a question from a student provides the most meaningful learning experience of the day. Passion is only possible if we do not lock students into a narrow range of acceptable responses. Despite the ease of scoring multiple choice questions via Scantron, these tests can never replace what we learn about a student’s understanding when she has to provide an answer and an explanation for that answer.

Bill described learning in his much-envied school setting:

Student interests and passions are why I love the democratic classroom techniques that are possible in my school. The kids in my 7th grade humanities class design about two-thirds of the units for the year around their own interests and questions. I dictate the areas of inquiry (aesthetics, psychology, history, world cultures) and genres of writing (literary analysis essay, research paper, etc.). For most units, passion is no issue. We feed off each other’s excitement as we explore the questions and see where our work takes us.

Anne summed up:

Reading all your comments is like having someone else express my thinking—more eloquently than I ever could. I agree that the “how to” of having students experience “P” (pleasurable emotion) is the key to real and remembered learning.

In working through my own thoughts on this formula, I went about it backward—first thinking of the students who really find pleasure in learning science and what might contribute to that. One thing that seems to be common is that they gravitate toward one another in class. They challenge each other and form bonds based on a common interest. I think those relationships play a role in “feeding” their enthusiasm.

I valued all of my students and consciously used verbal language and body language that let them know that. However, some students and I also shared a bond that had to do with a common fascination with the world of science. I almost left that statement out here, because it sounds as if I singled out some science students as “special” “people. Not so. But common interests do bring a level of comfort into relationships.

I think some students were more comfortable with me because we already had something in common—a starting point for feeling connected—and they worked even harder at science to maintain that. So perhaps part of “P” involves relationships—students’ relationships with one another and their relationships with the teacher.

What do you think about Anne’s proposed formula for learning? Can students learn at high levels without the “P” ingredient? And if not, how would YOU describe the factors that produce “P” —pleasurable emotion—in the learning environment?


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