Random Musings on The Nature of Learning and the Retry Button

Off topic a little bit, but it’s therapeutic for me, and I’m friends with the editor…

Three seemingly unrelated things got my educator wheels spinning yesterday and today. The first was a video shared by a Twitter friend that features Adam Savage (Mythbusters), titled “Permission to Make“. In the video (below), Adam discusses how he has had this lifelong love of building things, testing them out, recreating, and on and on. He references the shortcomings in today’s education system, where kids have scarce (if any) time to make, time to construct and experiment.

The second thing that occurred was that I read a blog post about mobile devices and informal learning today while preparing for an upcoming professional development course. The post referenced a theory by some fellows at Princeton University called the 70/20/10 Model. This model states that roughly 70% of our learning occurs through our daily activities, 20% through social interaction, and a whopping 10% through formal educational experiences. It seems that we are predisposed to learn in natural settings and circumstances more effectively than we are with our backsides on cold plastic aligned carefully into rows so as to give us the best view of the whiteboard.

The third thing actually happened last night, when I downloaded an iPad app that the magical iPad Genius had recommended for me (He or she knows me so well, it’s a bit unnerving.). The app is a game called SimplePhysics. The principle is easy enough–construct a structure that is strong enough to survive some test. Of course, your resources (money) are limited, so keep it cheap. I discovered quickly that my physics knowledge is either very rusty, or the game is just plain out to get me. Not wanting to admit the latter, I pressed the Retry button. I continued to do so until I had successfully conquered a few levels, just enough to restore a little bit of my pride (I won’t reveal exactly how many clicks it took, for fear that tiny bit of pride will be lost again.).

So, what is the common thread of these 3 things? I think it is that schooling needs more building, more experiences, and more Retry buttons. The real world values the ability to make, to break (at times), to solve problems, to think. How much more effective might we be if we radically reset this whole thing and made learning the natural process it is when kids go home? Give them a problem, provide what they want/need to solve it, and stand back. Watch a kid learn to play a new video game. One of the most important features of a game is the ability to backtrack a bit and give it another go…and another… and another. A week later, they’re on level 112 with a #6 world ranking (despite the initiative and determination that “these kids today” just don’t have). Think about the first time they kicked a soccer ball. What if the coach had simply said, “Terrible–you get a C-. Now, on to shooting a basketball.” Kids will stick with games until they get the hang of them, no matter how many missteps they make. Who among us didn’t hit a mailbox or two when we were learning to drive a car? (Anyone…?) We learn best by doing and tinkering and attempting and retrying, not by meditating and memorizing. This is what builds real-world value into learning. Real life learning is filled with Retry buttons. Schools don’t have time for them, though–they have the curriculum to cover.

I saw this in action this week, incidentally. I saw a group of our students who, after a mere 6 days of work, had created a mountain of very high-quality products focused on an awareness campaign for a polluted waterway in the area. It was their first experience with anything resembling project based learning. Teachers and students raved about it. The audience at the school board meeting gave the beaming kids a standing ovation. And, despite the fact that they never shared a single bubble sheet or fill-in-the-blank worksheet, I am completely confident that their knowledge of science, math, technology, social studies, and language arts were all deepened. Most importantly, as they worked to solve the problem, they researched, they experimented, they communicated, they built, they got their feet (quite literally) wet, they made mistakes, they hit the Retry button, and they accomplished something real and valuable. Isn’t that the kind of thing most of us envisioned when we took this gig?


  1. David Phillilps

    June 14, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Hey Randy,
    Some valuable revelations in your epiphany. I believe you’re right about just about everything. I’ve conducted my Senior dual-credit English course essentially as a PBL course with emphasis on writing and creating using many tech tools for several years now. Students gripe about the quantity of work involved and the demands for “near” perfection, but the retry button is always available. In fact, with peer editing and “intrusive tutoring,” retry is built into the course.

    I believe that many educators think the model of instruction we have used since Dewey is more efficient than PBL. I also believe they are wrong. We “cover the material” every year, but almost every teacher I know complains that students don’t retrain knowledge, so they end up re-teaching for a good part of each school year. That’s anything but efficient.
    I also think about 80% of our students are not very good at “pencil and paper” learning–worksheets, questions at the end of the chapter, multiple-guess, etc. There is a small percentage who are compliant and concerned about grades (not necessarily about learning) mostly because of parent expectations. Many of those become teachers. Since they are a part of that small percentage, they don’t really understand why the larger percentage of students can’t learn the way they did, although even teachers continually learn in the ways you describe.
    We’re not going to change outcomes until we change the way we approach learning.
    When I do workshops now, I start with a question like, “Are teaching and learning the same thing?” or, “Think of the last thing you learned about which you were excited and wanted to tell others about. How did you learn it?”
    Students could answer those questions in a heartbeat. Teachers are very hesitant, because they sense that a true answer will call into question their core understandings about their methods.
    By the way, I get e-mails and texts and visits from past students often telling me that their success in college is in part due to the things they learned in my class–and they can remember a great deal of what they learned.
    We’ve got to stop focusing on teaching and start focusing on learning–by any method that brings about real understanding, retention, the ability to connect knowledge and skills in multiple disciplines, and that can be demonstrated with products that have value, value students can see. We’ve gotta change!

    • Hi, David,
      Thanks for the very insightful reply! I am 100% in agreement, especially that we HAVE to change. I’m not a particularly patient person, I must admit–I am ready for the revolution now! I wonder when we as educators will join our voices together and demand change and wrestle control from the politicians whose policies hold us back so.

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