This post is written by Andy Jones, Director of Teaching and Learning at the American School of Brasilia (EAB).

At EAB, each week a group of teachers embarks on two-hour Learning Walks where we wander our way through classrooms to essentially learn about learning at our school. On each walk, we visit classrooms for approximately 20 minutes at a time, and we make sure we’re getting to a wide range of classrooms each week–from our youngest learners to oldest, our most rigorous math class to our most creative art class. In each of these classrooms the team of teachers observes the learning occurring, and most central to this is sitting down to chat with students who are in the process of learning. In each classroom, we ask our students the following questions: 

  1. What are you learning? 
  2. Why are you learning this?
  3. How will you know when you have learned this? 

The conversations with students are both fascinating and informative and help us see learning at our school in the most authentic light. As we aim to ensure that learning is clear and meaningful for all students, these Learning Walks give us great insight into the most appropriate steps we need to take to ensure that each student at our school is given the best chance to thrive as a learner. 

While each Learning Walk–and each conversation with a student–is inherently different, some clear themes emerged from this process: 

  • For the most part our students understand what they’re learning–and they also have a strong sense of how they know when they’ve learned something 
  • Their answers to “why are you learning this?” are all over the place–and in many cases, indicate this is an area for growth 

This is where Julie Stern’s work with EAB has been invaluable. 

We see the “Why?” question as central to what really matters in education, and as we brought Julie to our school, this is where she’s had the greatest impact. Her approach to conceptual-based and transfer learning has created a shift in our learning culture. Her workshops with our full faculty, individual departments, and in-depth online courses have provided our teachers with a fresh lens on how to make learning as meaningful as possible for our students. Instead of approaching content as something that needs to be covered, Julie’s encouraged our teachers to take the content in their curriculum and have students approach it through a conceptual lens. This means that students are no longer looking at an individual lesson and thinking, “I’m doing this because the teacher assigned it,” or “I’m doing this because it’s the next chapter in the textbook.” Instead, after Julie’s work with our teachers, here are some of things we’re hearing on our Learning Walks: 

  • I can see how this lesson is going to help me be able to do other things like this in the future.
  • The empathy I’m learning as a result of this project applies to lots of my other classes and other projects. 
  • I see how this connects to the real-world on many levels and that’s exciting.

Once Julie started working with our teachers, it became more and more common for our Learning Walkers to walk into classrooms where key concepts and conceptual-based prompts were displayed prominently on the board as classes dove into their lessons. And not coincidentally, this is when we started getting the richest answers from our students in answering the question, “Why are you learning this?” 

When students see learning and connect it to real-world concepts, they find more meaning in the learning–and they learn far more. We’ve found that where students were struggling to answer the “Why?” question, now they’re excited to share their own individual answers. Learning has become more fun because they see the possibilities of how they can transfer what they’re learning in one subject and one class and transfer it to other subjects and other classes. 

And the best part of all of this is we’ve only just begun. As we dive deeper into our work with Julie, the more our teachers learn, the more questions they have. (The same is true for our students!) The more ingrained the question, “Why are you learning this?”, becomes in our school, the more important Julie’s focus on conceptual understandings and transfer learning is. This is why we’ve been so thrilled to have Julie with us this past school year–and why we’re looking forward to much more in the future. 

About the author:

Andy Jones is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the American School of Brasilia, a pre-K-12 international school of approximately 680 students, which includes an equal mix of Brazilian and international students. The school employs an inquiry-based curriculum that culminates with the IB Diploma Programme for its high school students.