Tectonic Learning?

Responding to yesterday’s post on Google+, Don said,

Perhaps its because I have lived almost all of my life in California…but I tend to think of learning as tectonic. There are lots of times when it moves along smoothly, and you don’t even notice that its happening. Then the movement gets stuck…and the pressure builds…eventually it releases all at once…and it make a big jump that shakes things up and is often messy and disruptive.

Since the upper-level class is still reading stories (Tres Columnae Lectio XXXV this week) about the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – and since I read Don’s comment over lunch, when we’d just been working with one such story – I found the image particularly striking.  Striking, and profoundly true.  And to complicate things further, each learner, in this metaphor, is a separate but interconnected tectonic system, affected not only by the common external forces that teachers and other learners can see, but also by unique internal forces that the learners themselves may not consciously notice.

A colleague, now long retired, used to ask her ninth-graders, “Why did you do that?”  She didn’t really expect an answer, but she thought it was important to raise the question.  Sometimes she’d even ask “Why did I do that?” – a powerful model and example.    At our afternoon session on Monday, the presenter reminded us that, while teenagers will probably always do some dumb and annoying things, the really bad stuff is less likely when their critical needs –especially the needs for safety and belonging and a sense of accomplishment – are met.   Perceptions are key, of course; Ms. X may deeply believe that she’s providing a safe and happy environment (“if only those bad, lazy kids would realize how hard I work and how much I care!”), but if A, B, and C feel unsafe and miserable, Ms. X’s perception won’t change theirs any more than theirs will change hers.

And when you feel ignored – whether you’re Ms. X or those “bad, lazy kids” of hers – tectonic forces start to work inside you, don’t they?  There’s anger and sadness and lots of other stuff bubbling away just below the surface of your conscious awareness, and if you don’t become aware – or if you try to keep a lid on the bubbling stuff – the pressure builds up and, sooner or later, tectonic (and deeply unpleasant) results tend to follow.  Ms. X and Mr. Y (and my “evil twin Ralph”) yell and label or storm and threaten or bluster and posture, and A, B, C, and their classmates … well, they do the same.  And then the pain-punishment cycles continue, and the pressures build up again, and the cycles repeat, and no one seems to know how to stop even though – if you asked them – everybody would say they hated it.

But for some reason, I haven’t seen many tectonic effects like that this year.  For the most part, the Latin Family has handled things early, while they were small, and we’ve taken care to build and preserve the joyful community even when we need to have difficult conversations.  The other day, when K and his friends were having a conversation, T said, “Guys! Could you be quieter?  I mean, you can still talk if you need to, but we can’t hear or concentrate.”  It was a tectonic breakthrough, but a controlled one … and a great opportunity for me to remind everybody about the principle of managing yourself that’s so important to our community.  “I realize,” I told K’s friends, “that you probably haven’t ever had to manage yourselves and be aware like that.  Depending on where you went to school, your teachers just told you what to do, and at home your parents probably tell you what to do, and when you’re with a group of friends, you just know what to do.  But you haven’t really learned how to manage yourselves in a public place where there are lots of things going on.”

K and the others didn’t say anything on Tuesday … but on Wednesday, they were a lot more actively involved in our shared work than they had been, and a lot more in control of their volume level during small-group work.  Tectonic learning?  I hope so!  We’ll see today, when we do a lot of self-paced, self-managed work with reading and writing and even hearing and understanding Latin, with parts of three different stories, a “new thing,” and some self-paced practice with old, but challenging “stuff.”

Ms. X and Mr. Y, what would you think of the tectonic learning metaphor?  Many A Ms. X I’ve known would try to dismiss it with the old trope that “I don’t teach Earth Science or whatever!”  But my current colleagues are more open, more interested, more willing to take on the role of learner as well as teacher.  What will they say, I wonder, when I bring up the metaphor at lunch or in a hallway conversation?

When you’re building a joyful learning community, metaphors are important.  It’s good to explore them, to develop new ones, to see the promise and the limitations of each one you try.  I wonder what exciting discoveries – and new metaphors – await us all today!

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Published in: on October 31, 2013 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Metaphors are the stepping stones to transforming schools. I keep referring to Chris Lehmann’s talk last week, but he emphasized the fact that language matters–the way we talk about teaching and learning makes a big difference when it comes to the work that we do and the way that others perceive that work. Justin, you are a leader in this regard. Thanks for helping us all to think differently about teaching, learning, and language. I appreciated Don’s post as well.


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