Friday, November 13, 2015

When Learning Sticks

I had a joyful moment this week.

As a former middle school teacher, it is always just a bit odd for me to have one of my former young-adolescent students in class again now that I am teaching in higher ed. But it happens, and I'm getting used to it.

And, every once in a while, something wonderful happens.

One of my former middle-schoolers-turned-future-teacher caught me before class the other day:

"Hey, Mr. Mulder..."


"Remember when you taught us about cells in middle school? We learned about how things get in and out of cell membranes? And you taught us about diffusion?"


"Well, we were talking about diffusion in one of my science classes this week, and I remembered something you taught us in middle school."

"Really? Do tell!"

Image by Kath [CC BY 2.0]
"Well, you used the analogy of a smoke bomb going off in the trashcan in our classroom. At first, all of the smoke would be in the trashcan--a high concentration--but eventually, the smoke would spread out to where there wasn't as much smoke--a lower concentration. And that's how I still remember it today: things always diffuse from high concentration to low concentration, and it takes energy to do the opposite."

Wow. I was kind of honored--and surprised, honestly--that she remembered this example with such specificity. (I do remember using that analogy...)

It was affirming to hear that I taught something in a way that really "worked" for a middle schooler, and worked well enough that she still remembered it clearly 7 years later.

Now, maybe that analogy didn't work for all of my students. In fact, I'm sure that many of the students I taught way back then have no memory of that lesson, let alone a description of what I actually taught that day in class. But sometimes, learning sticks.

This has me wondering about what kinds of learning experiences can really help students understand things in meaningful ways. In that same class--actually, on that same day!--we were learning about Marzano's Classroom Instruction that Works; the 9 best practices for teaching that cut across grade levels and subject disciplines. It has me wondering if there was something about that particular lesson that made it particularly effective for this student remembering it: maybe because I used an analogy? (Similarities and Differences) Maybe because I use a very visual image? (Nonlinguistic Representations) Maybe because I was tapping into background knowledge? (Questions, Cues, and Advanced Organizers)

Honestly, I'm not 100% sure. But it's a joy to hear a story of a time that my teaching made a specific difference for a student understanding a concept. Sometimes, learning sticks!