Timeless Learning

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part 1: Timeless Learning

 “That which prevails in the mind and permeates time, will serve the future.”

It didn’t matter…

     …that the string of small pearls Grandma wore every Thanksgiving were as old as I could remember. Grandpa gave them to her while riding back in his 1934 Ford truck after a long day of sorting through his mother’s belongings.  No, the pearls weren’t worth a great deal of money, but resting upon her neck on that navy blue dress… they were priceless. Their meaning to her transcended time.  It represented an understanding of a loving relationship, the challenges of life, and the journey that had evolved around the Thanksgiving table and grown over time.

     Some things never go out of style… a woolen sweater he gave you 35 years ago; that little black dress still sitting in the closet.  Some things are always there… knowing someone will always love you, a teacher that lit your curiosity with a thirst for figuring things out that still lives on to this day.  Things endure because they have meaning.  Experiences, thinking and personalized learning sometimes become timeless.  


State of the Art Today

     Overwhelmingly, actions of today are focused on seeking answers in the moment.  Answers are available with a few touches of a screen and with such, thinking is not required.  We now have a GPS of information that averts researching, sourcing, determination of accuracy or even appropriateness to the situation.  Time is often hurried or worse, wasted.  Is it time to revisit purposeful steps that build lasting capability?  For years we embraced “wait time” as a strategy that pauses the rush to provide answers, fostering thought and participation.  It works.  Yet, it’s not prevalent in our culture of schooling today.  And then there’s an even more powerful “2nd wait time” that fosters greater thought and processing… but that’s for another conversation.   Life is not about mere answers.  Life is about living, experiencing and learning.  Acquiring information in order to answer questions on a test or put words on a page for a grade may no longer be a good use of our finite resources.  It’s time… to invest in today in a manner that will support all that follows. 


Timeless Learning is Continuous Learning

     Anything deemed relevant to us gets our attention and is therefore processed more completely.  This results in greater interest and acquired knowledge.  Meaningful learning lives on and guides us into our future.  When we gain insight into the relationship between people or objects, that understanding gains potential for use in subsequent encounters.  The value extends over time.  Timeless learning becomes transferable to new situations, experiences, and deeper understandings.  As such, it is the big ideas, major concepts and understandings that cut across situations and domains that exponentially support our successes along the way.  Three non-negotiables deserve illumination and deliberate, persistent attention.  These are requisites for all humans that need to be taught, learned and honed throughout our lives (see included blueprint graphic).

     Requisite 1–Navigating Uncertainties:  Building capability for more effectively and efficiently taking on challenges and new circumstances is a life-long capacity.

     Requisite 2—The Art of Relating:  The skills of working with others and with information through critical thinking, organizing, classifying, analyzing, and communicating, cuts across everything we do.  These become useful, productive, confidence building, and support success.

     Requisite 3—Understanding Cognition:  Understanding how learning takes place for our students must be the fundamental lens of schooling.  Our work is not about teaching, it’s about learning.  How the brain learns and retains must drive all lesson activity along with curricular decisions.  Covering content is NOT timeless. Understanding, applying and transferring moves the needle.

     Navigating, relating and cognating are fundamental for all that we encounter at home, school, work and in elective or recreational activities.  Learning opportunities that generate applicable value moving forward become timeless for success and fulfillment.   Timeless does not mean unbounded, without limits.  Most things have a shelf-life or perish over time.  The learning that connects, holds interest, purpose and meaning for us does not extinguish.   Let’s take a peek into some classrooms of today.


When Horses Come to Water….

     Denny:  Two minutes after the class settles in, the door opens. As soon as he enters the classroom, Denny has an attitude. You can feel the perfect storm brewing. He is armed with a wealth of personal tools, often used to derail whatever is supposed to be happening. Chronically interfering with the class lesson is his mantra. As the need for attention escalates, Denny annoys other students, invading their workspaces, torturing their thinking. Keeping to oneself requires full effort. He wanders aimlessly about the room, sharpening a purposefully broken pencil out of boredom, as he disrupts the learning culture. Aggressions include verbal assaults.  Denny’s trips to the bathroom provide a brief sigh of relief from the teacher for a few distraction-free minutes! He is not focused, nor engaged, nor drinking the Kool-Aid of the school mission. He’d rather negative attention than address schoolwork he has neither the skills nor the perseverance to accomplish. He lacks confidence and hope.

     Sade:  Sade enters her English class reluctantly, knowing there’s little to feel good about. There is no joy in coming to school. Attempts to do the assigned work are seldom completed without a hovering adult.  Sade’s the poster child for “hand-over-hand” assistance, profuse with “I can’t” and “I don’t know how.”  Sade’s quiet and masterful at ducking so as not to be noticed. When prompted about her work, she seeks direction continuously from the paraprofessional. She lacks confidence and has little interest in the text, so she resorts to fidgeting with something in her desk.  Each day Sade patiently waits for someone to tell her what to do next. Even when she plods along and appears momentarily successful, Sade seldom understands sufficiently.  A completion-oriented focus to work takes place to get through the day.  Withdrawn, few friends, and seldom smiling, there’s not much that strikes Sade as worth an earnest effort.  Sweet kid, but… nothing seems to keep her attention. 

    Cortina:  Cortina enters class the same way she walks the hallways; orderly, alone, without notice.  She quietly sits, waiting for instruction and lecture to begin.  When asked, calm and passive compliance follow. Doing as told, she plays school very well.  Cortina completes her assignments and does a good job, getting the expected ‘A.’ Her work is usually good quality and likes to work alone… it’s easier that way!  Cortina’s posture pleads “please do not draw attention to me—just tell me what to do.”  She identifies no reason to be in this class—or at school other than to get a good grade.  There’s no sense of belonging. On a particularly bad day she looks down, away, or folds her arms with a brief expression that silently wonders, “why are we doing this?”  The day is long, boring and without personal or social inclusion.  Because she does as expected Cortina doesn’t believe anyone even notices her.  As a result, she distances herself emotionally and invests in precious few friends.  She is a master at accommodating the system and staying below the radar.  It’s safer that way. 

The metaphor   

We all know the metaphor, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  Perhaps we see the analogy referenced at times to students suggesting “You can teach them, but you can’t make them learn it.”  We’ve all encountered those that perennially generate consternation and frustration for peers and adults at school.  When working with Denny, Sade and Cortina the origin of their disenfranchisement may not be transparent. The reality is they see no likely purpose to the learning.  They have not learned the essential problem-solving skills to be successful in school. They see no relevance or interest in school and in fact have few, if any, connections at school that they see as purposeful in their lives.  Bottom line:  they are not thirsty.  We can—and do lead them to curricular tasks.  They just don’t drink from a perspective of thirst.  So, when we lead a horse to water and it doesn’t drink, does this suggest there’s something wrong with the horse? The logic in this is clear and prevalent. What if we prioritized a desire for learning (creating thirst) before expecting any to drink a scripted curriculum that has no taste for learners and often teachers alike? 


Touching down in 2022

     Too many educators and their students are suffering from a lack of purpose and meaning in their work. Our focus must be to give thought to why our students lack motivation, desire–a thirst for learning. Perhaps what the pandemic of 2020-22 demonstrated is the urgency to connect what we teach to that which students see as having value for their future goals and aspirations.   Typical, traditional maneuvering will not fix an issue if we’re focusing on the wrong problem!  What if it’s not about the program, books, facility, or new-fangled instructional strategies? Clearly our new buildings, technology, materials, and programs would have fixed the problem by now if they held such import.  Our repetitive return to rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic is exhausting for all, yielding little return.  Let’s not mistake activity with accomplishment!  The origin of our ongoing challenges does not begin with pointing fingers or faulting students, but rather to ask, “Why are they not thirsty for learning?” Then, perhaps we can focus on what may unearth decades of misaligned, albeit good intent. 

     Our research, which we have defined as the DNA of Learning blueprint, depicts fundamental components and provides insight into the origins of perennial challenges.  Importantly, the thread that permeates the entire Blueprint is timeless learning.  Without this as the primary purpose of schooling, the clock will continue to tick, missing potential within the learners of the future.

     If Denny, Sade and Cortina do not at first connect well with others, especially the adults in school, little learning evolves.  They must first become adept at navigating the uncertainties they encounter and be involved in effective strategies for cognition before becoming engaged in the learning process.  Until their fundamental need to be known, understood, and connected are met, the need to learn will evade them.  Different kids for sure, but with one common denominator… they are disenfranchised from the provisions before them.  The blueprint for DNA of Learning is clear.  Everything starts with the student being well known.  This relationship must be vetted through the requisites of relating, cognition, and navigating uncertainties prior to believing that there will be a thirst for learning.  It should be clear that if these initial items were fully in place, the wave of disenfranchisement witnessed within so many of our students would be influenced in sustainably positive ways.  When an issue arises, look to these aspects of the Blueprint FIRST…  as 95% of the time the path forward will originate within the requisites and/or knowing any given student more fully.  Until the source is  identified, we’ll experience Groundhog Day over and over, again.  Let’s pause and determine where and why an issue is present before purchasing more programs and entertaining yet another passing initiative.

Moving toward tomorrow

     We have seen over time that we can lead them all to water and many will only consume what is required out of compliance motivated by reward tactics or grades.  We can lament how “kids” are not the same as they used to be—or conger some other blame-frame for why learning has not taken place… and the downward cycle will continue.  The pandemic virus may have illuminated the issue, however it did not create it. Starting with these questions may serve us to  refocus our efforts:

  1. Why are so many learners no longer thirsty for what is being offered?
  2. How might we get to know each student well enough (far beyond current notions of what this means) to understand the personal interests, aspirations and concerns that drive their choices?
  3. What relationships will cause engagement in learning regardless of specific content?
  4. What strategies might we learn, teach and use together to navigate the challenges and uncertainties we encounter?
  5. Is there known learning science & cognition literature that provides for consistent impact on sustained learning outcomes?
  6. How do we implement, monitor, assess progress and stay the course for at least five years—stemming the tide of initiatives that have been historically impotent?

     Address these questions with forthright, honest reflection.  The outcomes of such an earnest discussion can come from within each school and may be the best guidance we’ve had all along. We will not increase student success without the realization that learning STARTS with connecting with them first and developing a thirst for learning.

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