Education Opinion

Thoughts on Six Powerful Principles of Learning

By Joe Nathan — March 01, 2015 5 min read
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Joe Nathan begins, and Deborah Meier responds.

Deborah, you recently suggested that we discuss principles of learning. Thinking about young people like Ismael and Sheriden, that’s what I’d like to do today. These are people with whom I’ve worked with and learned from last week. They help illustrate six powerful principles.

1. Student as contributor. After 44+ years working in and with students, educators and public schools, for me, this remains one of the most important principles of learning for youngsters, K-12. Students learn so much from applying their knowledge to help others. Almost 30 years ago I wrote an Education Week commentary describing these ideas. It described a “Vision of Students as Citizens”.

The commentary cited, not just volunteer or service programs, but classes that combined development of academic skills with efforts to improve the community. For example:

* Elementary students who as part of a class, helped design, with an architectural student, gather materials for and build a playground for their school (including youngsters on the “sand committee” who wrote a dozen letters and made 20 phone calls before finding a group that donated six truckloads of sand).

* Secondary youngsters, as part of class work, studied and helped resolve hundreds of real consumer problems that adults referred to them. The “Protect Your Rights and Money” class helped youngsters develop stronger reading, writing and public speaking skills, and apply those skills. Websites such as What kids can do and National Youth Leadership Council offer great information about project based and youth/community service learning.

These are examples of using young people people’s insight, energy and talent. As explained below, a local public school did this last week with Ismael and Sheridan.

2. Using the world as a resource: No matter how well resourced, a school building should be viewed only as a headquarters for learning. There is so much to be learned from internships, apprenticeships, shadow studies, field trips, etc.

3. Promoting a multi-cultural perspective: Last week we helped create a program between Harding, a local St. Paul district high school and Battle Creek, a St. Paul district middle school from which Ismael Kamara and Sheriden Groves had graduated. Now seniors at Harding, they returned to talk with middle school students. They promoted the value of dual credit classes, which they taken. They also urged choosing friends and relationships in which there is support and encouragement for doing well in school. Ismael will be the first in his family not only to enter college, but also to graduate from high school. Sheriden cited her anger with the lack of people of color as “Oscar-nominees,” as part of her motivation to become a screenwriter, promoting more diverse roles and characters. The middle school students were fascinated, even mesmerized by these passionate insightful suggestions.

4. Technology as a tool: At the same meeting, I marveled at profiles of colleges and universities that Battle Creek Middle School students created with I-Pads, and help from their teachers. Emerging technology can be so helpful if faculty and students are given time and opportunity to learn about its potential.

5. Opportunity to study something that really matters to the student: Every student, every year, deserves this. I’m not suggesting that the curriculum is entirely up to students. But students should be able to spend part of their “school time” learning about a subject, issue or topic that they care about. I’d helped design and work in schools like this. It’s a great way to increase student engagement.

6. Clarity about outcomes, with feedback that’s specific and constructive: The most helpful feedback I received wasn’t from a standardized test. Great teachers gave wonderful advice about how to improve an essay, or a public presentation. Great coaches showed me how to improve my serve in tennis. Constructive feedback to students is vital. Educators need time, opportunity and encouragement to provide this.

Deborah Meier responds:

Dear Joe,

I like your list. It’s probably the basis of our collegial relationship. I might add a few--like being part of a multi-age community that includes adults engaged in shared tasks.

But, here’s my problem. What’s the glue that holds them together: the purpose behind it all? And, is there any way that Americans with different views on so many very basic things could agree on what they hold in common, beliefs that under-girds the “why” of public funding for education? K-12 education is, after all, about raising a generation of fellow citizens.

What might we want them to value, care about, know, understand--in common? That difficult to forget “habits” do we hope to instill? Can we find a shared secular “tradition” that also embraces our differences? Secular in both its meanings: “age long” and “earthly”. Not anti-religious or even irreligious.

The nearest I can come is some combination of our respect for the republic and democracy--while agreeing to also keep exploring both concepts. What “habits” of heart and mind matter to the preservation of both. That leaves separate the best ways of getting there--the trade-offs required between individualism and communitarianism, empathy for all living things and “patriotism” for the tribe.

I’m trying to imagine who might disagree with the learning principles you’ve set forth. Is there an implicit “value system” that precludes us from mandating that as the policy of publicly-operated institutions vs. privately operated ones? Is choice the answer to it? Or does choice itself make it harder to achieve? Are there some learning principles that should be publicly disallowed? Some preferenced? How does one decide?

The CPE/CPESS “habits of mind” were an attempt at putting forth a set of learning goals that seemed aligned with the ideals of democracy and which might suggest the principles you suggest but would not mandate them. Which of those habits would disadvantage some citizens over others--place them outside the common public sphere?

The five might be best summarized by the idea that “I might be wrong"--which is precisely what requires such habits. We stated them as questions, on purpose, rather than as principles. What’s the evidence? Is there a different way of seeing/making sense of the ‘evidence’? Is there a pattern? Supposing that...x vs. y? And why does it matter anyhow?



Joe Nathan responds: Deb and I discussed what she and I wrote, above. We agreed that instead of me writing a response, we would encourage many others to react We hope people will comment either on the six principles I presented, or the questions Deb asked, or both.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.