In this TEDx Talk, Diana Laufenberg shares 3 surprising things she has learned about teaching — including a key insight about learning from failures.
Diana Laufenberg – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Before I get started, I first have to say, hello, to all of my students who let me be out of school today. They’re staying late at school to watch the stream.
Hello to everybody out there in Philadelphia. I think they definitely deserve a round of applause.
Today, I’m going to tell you a couple of stories. I know I have a bit of a provocative title, I’ll get there, go with me. I have a story to tell you.
I have been teaching for a long time, and in doing so have acquired a body of knowledge about kids and learning that I really wish more people would understand about the potential of students.
In 1931, my grandmother – bottom left for you guys over here – graduated from the eighth grade. She went to school to get the information because that’s where the information lived. It was in the books; it was inside the teacher’s head; and she needed to go there to get the information, because that’s how you learned.
Fast-forward a generation: this is the one-room schoolhouse, Oak Grove, just down the road from where I grew up, where my father went to a one-room schoolhouse. And he again had to travel to the school to get the information from the teacher, stored it in the only portable memory he has, which is inside his own head, and take it with him, because that is how information was being transported from teacher to student and then used in the world.
When I was a kid, we had a set of encyclopedias at my house. It was purchased the year I was born, and it was extraordinary, because I did not have to wait to go to the library to get to the information. The information was inside my house and it was awesome.
This was different than either generation had experienced before, and it changed the way I interacted with information even at just a small level. But the information was closer to me. I could get access to it.
In the time that passes between when I was a kid in high school and when I started teaching, as Steve Case pointed out this morning, we really see the advent of the Internet.
Right about the time that the Internet gets going as an educational tool, I take off from Wisconsin and move to Kansas, small town Kansas, where I had an opportunity to teach in a lovely, small-town, rural Kansas school district, where I was teaching my favorite subject, American government.
My first year – super gung-ho – going to teach American government, loved the political system.
Kids in the 12th grade: not exactly all that enthusiastic about the American government system.
Year two: learned a few things – had to change my tactic. And I put in front of them an authentic experience that allowed them to learn for themselves. I didn’t tell them what to do or how to do it. I posed a problem in front of them, which was to put on an election forum for their own community.
They produced flyers. They called offices. They checked schedules. They were meeting with secretaries. They produced an election forum booklet for the entire town to learn more about their candidates. They invited everyone into the school for an evening of conversation about government and politics and whether or not the streets were done well, and really had this robust experiential learning.
The older teachers – more experienced – looked at me and went, “Oh, there she is. That’s so cute. She’s trying to get that done. She doesn’t know what she’s in for.”
But I knew that the kids would show up, and I believed it, and I told them every week what I expected out of them. And that night, all 90 kids – dressed appropriately, doing their job, owning it. I had to just sit and watch. It was theirs. It was experiential. It was authentic. It meant something to them. And they will step up.
From Kansas, I moved on to lovely Arizona, where I taught in Flagstaff for a number of years, this time with middle school students. Luckily, I didn’t have to teach them American government. Could teach them the more exciting topic of geography. Again, “thrilled” to learn.
But what was interesting about this position I found myself in in Arizona, was I had this really extraordinarily eclectic group of kids to work with in a truly public school, and we got to have these moments where we would get these opportunities. And one opportunity was we got to go and meet Paul Rusesabagina, which is the gentleman that the movie “Hotel Rwanda” is based after. And he was going to speak at the high school next door to us.
We could walk there. We didn’t even have to pay for the buses. There was no expense cost. Perfect field trip.
The problem then becomes how do you take seventh- and eighth-graders to a talk about genocide and deal with the subject in a way that is responsible and respectful, and they know what to do with it.
And so we chose to look at Paul Rusesabagina as an example of a gentleman who singularly used his life to do something positive. I then challenged the kids to identify someone in their own life, or in their own story, their own world, that they could identify that had done a similar thing.
I asked them to produce a little movie about it. It’s the first time we’d done this. Nobody really knew how to make these little movies on the computer, but they were into it.
And I asked them to put their own voice over it. It was the most awesome moment of revelation that when you ask kids to use their own voice and ask them to speak for themselves, what they’re willing to share.
The last question of the assignment is: how do you plan to use your life to positively impact other people? The things that kids will say when you ask them and take the time to listen is extraordinary.
Fast-forward to Pennsylvania, where I find myself today – the students that you all clapped for at the beginning – I teach at the Science Leadership Academy, which is a partnership school between the Franklin Institute and the school district of Philadelphia. We are a nine through 12 public school, but we do school quite differently.
I moved there primarily to be part of a learning environment that validated the way that I knew that kids learned, and that really wanted to investigate what was possible when you are willing to let go of some of the paradigms of the past, of information scarcity when my grandmother was in school and when my father was in school and even when I was in school, and to a moment when we have information surplus.
So what do you do when the information is all around you? Why do you have kids come to school if they no longer have to come there to get the information?
In Philadelphia we have a one-to-one laptop program, so the kids are bringing in laptops with them everyday, taking them home, getting access to information.
And here’s the thing that you need to get comfortable with when you’ve given the tool to acquire information to students, is that you have to be comfortable with this idea of allowing kids to fail as part of the learning process. We deal right now in the educational landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test, and I am here to share with you: it is not learning.
That is the absolute wrong thing to ask, to tell kids to never be wrong. To ask them to always have the right answer doesn’t allow them to learn.