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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Appetite For Learning

Education is a life-long endeavor that does not stop at graduation from high school or college. It is a pursuit that operates much of the time outside the walls of any classroom. Experience is frequently our own teacher, offering real-time feedback and providing many practical lessons. As long as our world continues to change, we will be required to adapt in order to survive, and learning is central to sustaining progress. Learning has often been described as a journey, not a harbor. The process is every bit as important as the product.

These are all notions that warrant the consideration of those anxiously awaiting the receipt of a diploma later this month at Heatly, and other high schools across the nation. Consider this event simply a transition from one chapter in life to another. Forty years have elapsed since I walked across the stage, shook hands with the superintendent (the first time I ever met him) and thought I was finally finished and liberated. Thirteen years completed, at times with the perception that it had been a sentence and incarceration. It was really only the beginning.

I had learned a lot during my public school experience but it was like riding a bike with training wheels. It was a controlled process oriented around the stimulus response interaction led by the teacher and responded to by children. The learning was fairly passive within the confines of a uniformly shaped classroom, with the same classmates all day, daily routines conforming to the predictable rhythm of periods and bells at regular intervals.

In contrast, when I arrived at college, it was an awakening. The training wheels were off and I struggled to find and maintain my balance, wobbling a little and fearful of falling down or crashing. The environment grew exponentially, with far more learners, scattered through numerous buildings. Some of the classes were located in lecture halls that swallowed up as many people as I had in my graduating class in high school. There were no homeroom teachers responsible for getting your day started. No bells to guide you down a long straight hallway to your next class. No guidance counselor to shepherd you toward course selections. No regular routines that create a mechanical, robot-like stupor as you move through the school day. No deep and caring relationship between teacher and learner forged over the shared time of daily classes in a self contained room. No parent to offer support and check to make sure you did your homework.

Continuing with the bike riding analogy, I acquired a sense of independence and a firmer grasp of responsibility as I began to keep a steady balance and ride with more confidence. I found myself being able to extend my progress and broaden my horizons. It was a great feeling. I increased my intensity and focused on the opportunity to continue to grow as a person. I felt more in control of my future.

All these years later and I still have an appetite for learning that keeps me going. Reflecting back on my own public school career as a learner motivates me as a superintendent to exercise influence and leadership to differentiate the thirteen year journey from the one I experienced. It needs to be a path that provokes more creativity, encourages more higher order thinking, stimulates the development of problem solving skills, and promotes as many questions as answers. Most of all, it must be an experience that prompts learners to pledge themselves to a life of learning.

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