The Complexities of Learning

Capes for Kids

My partner and I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks talking to our twelve-year old son about strategies for fueling his own learning.  For those of you with experience parenting pre-teens, you’ll appreciate that—at times – this has felt a bit like bashing my head against a wall.  (Bennett is smart, opinionated, and articulate.  We, his parents, know nothing; he is omniscient!)  In those moments, however, when Bennett is open to self-reflection and contemplation … we’ve had some great conversations about learning styles — visual, auditory, kinesthetic – and how each modality might be leveraged to optimize his comprehension and retention.  In the process, I was reminded about key tenets of evidence-based pedagogy and/or scholarly teaching.

To optimize our effectiveness as educators working across the continuum from early-childhood to post-graduate programming, we are morally obligated to create learner-focused, active, and engaging environments.  Specifically, we are accountable for ensuring that – consistent with our new Academic Plan – our courses and programs embrace the diverse strengths of our students.  Consistent with the foreword of Make it Stick (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel’s, 2014):  “good teaching … should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier”.

In Bennett’s case, that commitment demands an attention to kinesthetic learners – those who, for example, thrive when physical movement and/or experience are incorporated into the curriculum and pedagogy.  As someone who has always self-identified as a visual learner, I’ve had to re-think the counsel I might otherwise offer on learning strategies because – quite simply – they don’t work for him.  Instead, we’re encouraging his teachers to incorporate active learning, and — more specifically — experiential education (EE), a signature pedagogy at Sheridan that is realized through work-integrated learning, capstone courses, and our approach to Scholarship, Research & Creative Activities.

We’re not alone in espousing the value of active learning and/or EE.  In Essential Teaching Principles, a resource used by our Centre for Teaching & Learning, Weimer (2016, p. 105) cites five key learning principles:

  • “Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner”
  • “Learning facts and learning to do something are two different processes”
  • “Some things that are learned are specific to the domain or context… in which they were learned, whereas other things are more readily transferred to other domains”
  • “Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone” and,
  • “Meaningful learning is facilitated by articulating explanations, whether to one’s self, peers, or teachers”

Notwithstanding my personal penchant for colour coding and highlighting text, it’s hard not to see the inherent value of active engagement.  On reflection, some of my most impactful learning moments since joining the Sheridan learning community have come through experience.

  • I commissioned students from the Technical Production for the Performing Arts program to make me a cape that I wore for a week last February to raise money for Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Through the design and production processes, I got to experience the wardrobe shop and engage informally with students who were pursuing career paths I knew very little about.
  • My family and I worked with two students from Architecture Technology last spring to help us vision a major renovation of our current home in Toronto. Over the course of their project, I learned a lot about the program and about how the students’ learning experiences were impacted by construction delays at the HMC campus.
  • To remedy years of shoulder pain, I invested in Athletic Therapy at our Clinic on the Davis Campus. Working with a senior student who had exceptional clinical and interpersonal skills afforded me a window on the demands of the AT program and how clinical/field placements are used to optimize learning outcomes.
  • To better understand Sheridan’s commitment to creativity, I attended classes in PSB and FHASS that engaged and inspired me.

Here’s the bottom line: engaging learners in a way that purposefully connects curriculum to the real world and affords time for reflection can be transformative. Our colleague Cherie Werhun (Associate Dean, Centre for Teaching & Learning), notes that the practicalities of this involve connecting with the learner, reflecting, connecting with your own toolkit of resources, accessing other resources to inform your approach, and experimentation.  She further linked this to our burgeoning Scholarship of Teaching & Learning model.

In your role(s) as educator, parent, coach or mentor …  you no doubt have countless examples of when and how experiential or active learning worked for you personally.  If you’re interested in living vicariously through my next monumental EE adventure at Sheridan, watch for my February post.

With thanks to Ann Callaghan (Program Coordinator, Make-up for Media and Creative Arts) for connecting me with Kat from Kats Klaws Makeup and AJ Kane from AJ Kane Artistry — two students in the Advanced Special Effects Makeup, Prosthetics and Props Program — my partner Ken and I will be assuming superhero identities to raise money for a number of children- and family-focused charities in Oakville on February 24, 2018.  Our plan is to photo-document our transformation and serve as walking adverts for Sheridan’s exceptionally talented student community.

Stay tuned …