We Need to Name Our Learning

“You have to name the learning,” she said. “NAME the LEARNING.” Teachers have lightbulb moments too!

It’s an exciting time to be an educator. The research on learning and student achievement has reached new levels and at a rapid rate since the Internet became Queen. Edu-geeks around the world are finding each other across the Twitter-sphere, the uni-Facebook, and many blog-topias.

Research-based teaching strategies are now accessible to most teachers in North America, certainly in Ontario. I have access to more exciting research in education from my recliner at home then I did when I spent hours in the Faculty of Education libraries during my B.Ed and grad school.

What was life like before Edugains

Before Edugains, as a high school teacher, I relied on my colleagues to share their experiences, to pass on the giant binders of knowledge when I started teaching a new course. The tradition of binder sharing was focused on the content, the stacks of comprehension questions about Hamlet, the lists of essay topics, and the folders of group seminar projects. The focus was on what students knew about the play. We interpreted curriculum based on student learning about the characters in stories. My main source of learning as a teacher was from my colleagues.

I was lucky to work with an amazing English department. The staff were conscientious, hard-working, passionate about being teachers. But I wonder what it would have looked like in my early years of teaching if I had access to all the great stuff out there now…the great stuff out there about LEARNING.

The first workshop I attended outside of my school was in my fifth year of teaching–and I was the presenter!! Professional development and teacher learning didn’t seem to be a priority for my first ten years of teaching. I didn’t have access to anything outside of my school building.

Edugains is one of many dynamic sites out there leading the way in linking research with practice.

Why didn’t I focus on learning then?

If I could go back and teach high school English again I would toss the binders out the window. I would sit down with my curriculum, underline the verbs for that course, and put together a program that is skill-based. I would focus on what students need to learn rather than what I need to teach.

Why do students write essays in English class? To share their learning. Easy answer. But in twelve years of teaching English I didn’t ask my students about their learning. I asked students about their thesis and outline and essay. I commented on paragraph structure and grammatical errors. We discussed the relevance of their quotations to their arguments. But I can’t recall ever engaging in an explicit robust discussion about learning. What do we learn from Hamlet? What did YOU learn? What do we learn from essay writing?

I bet my students would say that an essay was a product of what they knew about Hamlet. Where in the curriculum has it ever said that students need to know Hamlet? I bet my students missed many other great things we can learn from essay writing because we didn’t name our learning. We named the minute details of story.

Literature is important but it is a vehicle for learning communication and thinking skills, a support for students to understand themselves and their world. I would want my students to be able to name their learning. I wonder what students would say if I probed deeper when they answered that they learned about Hamlet with a simple repetition of “what else? What else did you learn? And what else?”

I began teaching over fifteen years ago. My edu-view has shifted. It’s all about learning now. My learning, student learning, and staff learning. What are we learning? Can we name it?

Learning Communities

So last week I’m sitting among my enthusiastic staff at a Professional Learning Community (PLC) session, when a teacher in our NTIP program shared her lightbulb moment. “You have to name the learning!”

Then she asked if she had now earned her edu-geek badge.

What I love most about education research is that it all fits together. The pieces seem like separate “initiatives” (educators cringe at this word), but there comes a moment of awakening in every edu-geeks development where the pieces all become part of something greater. It all comes down to one word: learning.

It’s embarrassing to admit but I didn’t know how to define the word “learning” after being a teacher for ten years. When a prof in grad school asked us to define “learning” I drew a blank. It seemed so abstract. The definition for learning is so simple: change. Learning is change.

Before students can name their learning, educators need to know how to name their own learning. So my hope is to do regular blog posts about my learning.

My theory of action is: If I become better at sharing my learning, then I will be able to better support my staff in sharing their learning who will be better able to support students in sharing their learning.


  • Lesley Nightingale

    wow Jessica you just named my learning.I have been struggling with all the new initiatives and I could not get my head around it! After 30 years of teaching I was beginning to feel that the bend in the road was a brick wall ! But I think I can negotiate the curve again! Thanks,Lesley

    • Jessica Outram

      Thanks, Lesley. Using “LEARNING” as a touchstone in every “initiative” can make it much easier to keep our feet on the ground. What am I learning? What are students learning? How am I creating conditions for learning? How am I assessing learning and determining next steps? It isn’t easy but once we can name “learning” research shows that students will reach their goals. Each new initiative is like a Russian doll building another doll, and another–but at the heart is learning. Our staff has found this very affirming! It’s the learning that matters.

      See…I’ve clearly had the KoolAid. I can’t stop. LOL!

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