What Does Learning Really Look Like?

I’ve faced myriad challenges in the last 8 months getting a new program at my school off of the ground. I’ve stood in front of a school board that accused me of designing a program aimed at skimming the best and brightest students off of the top, despite the diversity of the students enrolled. I’ve heard the rumblings and rumors by those on my campus who are not thrilled by my desire to try something new. But the biggest challenge is trying to get my students to rethink what it means to be a learner and rethink what learning looks like.

For most of their education, my students have spent their days in classrooms where the teacher was the primary source of information. They’ve been conditioned to sit in assigned seats, take notes, and listen quietly. It was naïve of me to think I could change their perception of learning over night.

In N.E.W. School, we do not have a seating chart. My teaching partner, Marika Neto, and I want our students to create their own learning environment each day to support and enhance the work they are doing in that moment.

We believe the first step in creating is creating your learning environment.Click To Tweet However, that level of autonomy and flexibility is new and unfamiliar to students who have been given few opportunities to make decisions about how and where they learn.

Marika and I rarely stand at the front of the room and talk. If we need to transfer information, like science notes, vocabulary, and writing tutorials, we use the flipped classroom model so students can control the time, place, and pace of their own learning.

We intentionally don’t use our valuable time together in class to lecture. Instead, we use that time to get students exploring, researching, collaborating, and, ultimately, leading the learning.

The best gift I can give my students is to teach them how to learn.Click To Tweet I want them to leave my classroom confident in their ability to continue learning long after we’ve said “adieu.”

We also strive to make learning experiential in N.E.W. School. We want students to get their hands on learning. Too often students are relegated to passive learners. We want them to be active participates in the learning that happens in N.E.W. School.

In the last two weeks, students have been learning about the digestive system to complement their reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and our research into diet, food production, and health. Instead of projecting a power point and walking students through the process of digestion, Marika designed a “how to make poop” lab. Sounds gross, right? Talk about a great way to hook students. Just tell them they will be making poop!

Students broke into teams and each team simulated a part of the digestive system. The students mashed up food to simulate teeth and chewing, the mashed food passed through a paper towel tube (aka. esophagus) and into a big plastic bag, the stomach, where it was mixed and mashed some more. Then students squeezed the food through a nylon stocking to represent the small intestine, and so on through the digestive system. They followed the path food takes through our bodies in a hands-on lab that I am sure few students will forget.


Even though student engagement during this lab was extremely high and their resulting multimedia blogs reflected a deep understanding of the digestive system, some students still feel like they are missing some key component of learning because it doesn’t look like the work they are doing in other classes.

The truth is that experiential learning requires students engage with information and with each other. This requires more energy, effort, and focus than sitting in a seat listening to someone else talk. It requires that they take a central role in their learning.

My hope is that learning and being excited about the work they are doing in N.E.W. School will become its own reward, and over time they’ll begin to appreciate that learning takes many forms. It should be fun, engaging, and student-centered.

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11 Responses to What Does Learning Really Look Like?

  1. Helen Holland says:

    Hats off to you, Catlin! I’ve been having similar difficulties in my Australian suburban school in engaging students who have been used to mostly teacher-directed learning. I know experiential and project or problem-based learning takes more time and effort for everyone, but what fantastic learning through it! I’m determined to be a driver at my school of this kind of learning, but I do recognise that it will take a number of years to turn around before it becomes ‘the way we do business’. Thankfully there’s now a whole narrative in the research around this kind of learning being necessary for 21st century skills to be developed. Schools really shouldn’t have a choice, should they? It’s so frustrating to hear of the difficulties you’ve faced even with your school board! I want to encourage you to keep persevering, because the tide is turning and you will have a massive impact on the next generation’s learning experiences and outcomes. Hang in there and keep being innovative and passionate.

    • Thank you, Helen.

      It’s interesting to hear that you face similar challenges in Austrailia. I think I need to take my work one day at a time. There are days when I walk away from class feeling so proud of the work my students are doing and there are days when I feel frustrated and defeated. I guess, that’s to be expected when trying something so new and different.

      I appreciate the encouragement! Good luck to you in the work you are doing as well.


  2. Robyn Matus says:

    Hi Catlin,

    Really thoughtful post! We want students who are learning and can think for themselves. I like your idea of encouraging students to create their own learning environment rather than simply sitting in the same seats and taking notes. I believe learning comes in many forms and trying different methods is important in finding out what works best.

    Thanks for posting,

    Robyn Matus

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  4. Marlena Hebern says:

    Awesome post. Kids have to learn how to learn. It takes time! They won’t magically be transformed overnight. I hope your school and parents will allow the time needed to really learn! Good luck and keep blogging!

  5. Paul Austin says:

    Into our blended learning implementation and am seeing exactly what you’ve stated in this post. I’m finding that majority of students and teachers are comfortable with extrinsic rewards rather than intrinsic rewards. This is where transformation in a students learning will occur – the shift to intrinsic reward. WOW… what a process.

    Do you find it to be a focus on ‘soft skills’ and steps for self-regulated learners?

    • Hi Paul,

      Students definitely develop soft skills in their work together since the station work is so collaborative. I also try to make sure the directions are clear enough that they allow students or groups of students to self-pace their learning. However, I have also seen their reading, writing, and research skills develop more quickly than I ever did when teaching in a traditional model.


  6. Laura A Troppmann says:


    You mentioned in the article that the “multimedia blogs reflected a deep understanding of the digestive system” – what does a ‘deep understanding’ look like to you or to the students? How do you know it was possibly ‘deeper’ compared to learning through lecture and then lab? I am not a naysayer or a pragmatist. In fact, I am eagerly wanting to do this kind of work with students. I also notice that students don’t quite know what to do once they are off the conveyer belt (see Ken Robinson “Changing Education Paradigms” RSA Animate) but I feel like it is crucial to their education and their future to give them a chance to explore, define and create.

    Thank you

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your question, Laura!

      One of the biggest changes I have seen as a result of designing more labs focused on real-life application is the ability for the students to move away from rote memorization of vocabulary and concepts and be able to articulate how the digestive system applies to other parts of science, such as cellular respiration, cancer, diabetes, as well as larger social issues such as GMO’s, fast food and organic food versus conventional food. Another huge plus to having students reflect on their learning and use documentation to support their reflections in their digital notebooks is their improved retention of the information. Where lecture upon lecture tend to blend together, the students can still recall “that time we squeezed juices through pantyhose” and connect that experience to the small intestines and absorption. In general, I see much more engagement when students explore concepts and get their hands on learning. The more experiential science is, the better! I find that teachers using the lecture/lab model tend to dedicate way more time to the lecture component and less to the lab time.


  7. Cathy Keller says:

    I’ve had some students really push back against a flipped model and almost CRAVE lecture. Sometimes, I think they’re wanting to push the work back onto my lap, but sometimes I wonder if they’re not missing pieces of the “big picture” without lecture.

    • That’s an interesting comment, Cathy. I use flipped videos to introduce foundational “bite-sized” pieces of content. If there is something I want my kids to know and take notes on, a video is nice because they can control the pace at which they consume that information. That said, video is just a vehicle. The key to using video successfully does not have anything to do with the actual videos. It has to do with how the teacher uses the time they’ve created to engage students around that information. Videos alone are not going to yield high levels of learning. It is the follow-up teaching, collaborative group activities, and class discussions that make that information meaningful and provide that “big picture” understanding.


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