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What Is Learning?

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Daniel Dignan, a first-year student, said, “Learning is something to be enjoyed.”

When challenged to create his own visual essay on the essence of learning, Middlebury College senior Adam Lang put his trust in Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” who said, “We learn best from people who really care about us.”

“Learning is what excites us and motivates us and fills us with compassion,” Lang went on to declare in his video. “Learning is not a privilege; it is a human right and everyone should have access to a good education.”

Another student went to YouTube and pieced together clips of inner-city high school kids dancing and rapping and getting along famously with each other. A third returned to her hometown and visited with her favorite teacher in order to discover an answer to the question, “What is learning?”

All 12 students in visiting lecturer Emily Hoyler’s education studies course, Teaching Elementary Literacy and Social Studies (EDST 305), internalized the assignment and produced their own 5-to-10 minute videos, which they presented to the public last Wednesday evening, Dec. 4, at the Vermont Folklife Center.

While it’s unlikely that any of the films will be shortlisted for an Academy Award, in the aggregate they probed the question “What is learning?” from almost every conceivable angle. There was the Kindergartener on camera who pondered the query, “Who do you learn from?” and responded: “From everybody but statues.” And there was the college student who channeled the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants to help answer the question for him.

The goal of the course is to provide prospective elementary school teachers with the opportunity “to develop the necessary understandings and abilities for effective literacy and social-studies teaching for learners in a K-6 classroom.” It is based on the belief that reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, thinking, and computing are inseparable processes that flourish in supportive communities of learners. As a methods class for Middlebury College undergrads considering a career in teaching, each student was placed in an Addison County elementary school classroom from mid-September to early December to observe, assist, and both plan and carry out literacy and social studies lessons.

Their visual essays on learning, which the students presented publically, were intended to build on the class’s collective understanding of what learning is, and enhance each student’s proficiency with the tools used for digital storytelling.

Hoyler said, “By engaging students in developing the assessment strategy for the assignment” — a rubric that asked 1) whether the video adequately addressed the question and 2) whether it was both entertaining and interesting — “they were able to reflect on the purpose and meaning of assessment, and provide critical feedback to each other prior to the public screening.”

Hannah Root, a junior from Strafford, Vt., discovered in her elementary classroom that “learning goes both ways and learning is connection.” That by being an active participant, “by being part of something, we open ourselves up to learning.” (Watch Hannah Root’s video.)

In a collaborative learning environment each person is both a student and a teacher.

In a collaborative learning environment each person is both a student and a teacher.

To draw viewers into her video, Kaeng Takahashi ’15 made the conscious decision to forgo a narrator. “As a neuroscience major who doesn’t like science,” she made extensive use of text in her digital creation, and although she refrained from propounding a definitive statement on the nature of learning, she did demonstrate in her video that failure is an essential element in the process of problem solving.

Two students working independently found metaphors from their own lives to shed light on the question, What is learning?

For Hannah Staiger, a lanky senior from Wisconsin, the process of learning is akin to completing an arduous six-mile run, and she took viewers on the jog with her over hills, past cowfields, and down to the “Rattlin’ Bridge” in Weybridge to share in her journey. (Watch Hannah Staiger’s video.)

Sofia Silverglass discovered her metaphor for learning while sitting at her potter’s wheel. As viewers watch her spinning a lump of clay into a vessel, only to see it fall over into a useless lump clay again, the junior from Boston said, “Learning is messy and learning isn’t always linear… I don’t know exactly how to define learning and I am not sure there really is a definition. It’s an experience and it’s not the same for everyone,” which was exactly the point illustrated by the class’s 12 talented filmmakers.