In order for learning to be authentic, it needs to resemble real life. In my last post, I included John Dewey’s quote:
“Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.”
This idea seems to take on a new meaning with every facet of the classroom that crosses my mind. I’ve just started reading Making Thinking Visible by Ritchart, Church, and Morrison, and in the foreword, written by David Perkins, he mentioned the idea of the “signal experience.” Specifically, he discusses a “signal experience” of his own, where he overheard “half of a conversation” one day while walking through the park. He thought about all of the unanswered questions from hearing this half of a conversation–who the person was talking about, what the problem was, and so on, spiraling him into an epiphany on the importance “full conversation” when it comes to thinking and learning.
The Signal Experience
While this is all a great metaphor for thinking and learning, I more so connected with his idea of the signal experience. When Perkins walked through the park that day, I’m certain that he had not anticipated this epiphany, and likewise, did not plan on having his epiphany that day in that park at that time. Rather, the epiphany came about organically and authentically, he responded, and well, now he writes forewords for best-selling education books. I’m kidding, but I think you know what I’m trying to say.
Due to teachers’ need to predict and control many of the stimuli and outcomes that occur in the classroom, we’ve begun to undervalue the importance of the “signal experience”–the moment when something spontaneous and organic sparks our interest–or better yet, the interests of our children. The NCLB era has trained us to attempt to create signal experiences, but we’ve done so in vain. What do we do? We plan “hooks” into our lessons, and we include gimmicks to make students engaged, all which are well-intentioned and many times successful, but they aren’t always authentic, nor do they appeal to all learners. True signal experiences cannot be created; they cannot be falsified. Instead, signal experiences, in order to be labeled as such, need to come about organically and authentically. They need to excite something within the learner, and the only way they will excite the learner is if they’ve had a hand in recognizing the signal experience.
That’s why when a child realizes something on his or her own in class, before anyone else does, they get so excited and jump out of their seat. Not only are they thrilled by their epiphany, but they are even more excited and satisfied by the fact that they came to that conclusion before the teacher thought to elicit the epiphany from them. But how do we create this environment? We create it through inquiry.
Creating a classroom where inquiry is valued is integral to creating a classroom of purposeful and passionate learners. Encouraging them to ask questions, requiring them to conduct independent research projects, or using essential questions in your every day instruction will help lead children to these epiphanies and will help them to make connections on their own. This solution sounds simple, but inquiry-based learning is anything but simple to begin and to manage. It takes years of trying, reflecting, and adapting to actually integrate into your practice. That being said, it’s not simply a strategy; instead, it’s a way of thinking and a way of being in the classroom, meaning it needs to become a part of your classroom culture. So start now, try tapping into your students’ natural curiosities, experiment with inquiry-based learning, and begin to create a classroom where signal experiences are the energy source in your classroom!