Teaching How to Learn

The Living and Learning with New Media (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008) report was published in November 2008. I read it right away in its entirety and have been thinking about it ever since. Specifically, I've been thinking about how the findings of this project can assist teachers and teacher educators. What, I kept asking myself, can educators learn from this report? More importantly, how can these lessons then be applied in our classrooms and teacher education programmes? As I read and re-read this document I kept returning to its final section, "Conclusions and Implications." The final heading in this section struck a chord because it closely aligns with my doctoral research study and my current interest in assessment. The authors of the study state:

We see peer-based learning in networked publics ... in these settings, the focus of learning and engagement is not defined by institutional accountabilities but rather emerges from kids' interests and everyday social communication (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.38).

The study then goes on to state that "peers are an important driver of learning" (p.39) - not a revolutionary statement by any means, but important here in the light of what follows:

When these peer negotiations occur in a context of public scrutiny, youth are motivated to develop their identities and reputations through these peer-based networks, exchanging comments and links and jockeying for visibility. These efforts at gaining recognition are directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests (p.39).

It's not surprising that interactions with peers and even adults in an interest-driven community are more engaging and more fulfilling than traditional classrooms where teachers and their textbooks and tests are often presented as more important than independent thinking and personal growth. Motivation emerges from interactions that take place online where anyone can see and participate in them. This "context of public scrutiny" is of great importance here. The safety of the self-contained classroom, one separated (by walls and firewalls) from the rest of the world - the world we are supposed to prepare our students for - goes against everything that surrounds young people today and prevents them from learning how to navigate the complex online world. Instead of separating our students from the world they're getting ready for, instead of cocooning them in protected classrooms, we need to give them opportunities to learn from and with people who share their passions. We need to give them access to communities "where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age" (p.39).

What this means to me is that we need to seriously re-think not only our classrooms (we've known that for a while), but also, more importantly, our assessment and evaluation practices.

According to the report, we need to give our students access to "passionate hobbyists and creators" who share their work and passion in interest-driven communities, and who are valuable educationally because "youth see them as experienced peers, not people with authority over them"(p.39). Clearly, reducing access to these communities and the interactions they afford to letter or percentage grades is going to make our practices not only irrelevant but also, frankly, irresponsible. Opening up our classrooms to allow interest-driven interactions with people who "are not authority figures responsible for assessing kids' competence, but are rather what Dilan Mahendran has called 'co-conspirators'" (p.39) means that we have to start thinking very seriously about preparing our students for these interactions and helping them reflect on and learn from them.

How do we do it?

Some suggest that the tools teens embrace outside of school need to play a more prominent role in the classroom. Yes, these tools can help promote meaningful interactions, self-expression, and reflection. But let's not forget that merely bringing Web 2.0 tools into the classroom misses the point. Yes, they do promote peer-based interactions and self-expression. But adding blogging or wikis or even global collaborative projects to our curricula is not going to magically transform our static classrooms into interest-driven communities, and it certainly is not going to prepare the students to safely and effectively navigate "networked publics" (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.8). These tools are not going to magically create interest-driven communities. I have visited eight classrooms over the past four months, and in all but one I was shown both a class blogging community (or an online collaborative project) and also a list of teacher-generated prompts or assignments to be completed by each student for that very project. Will Richardson once referred to this as "assigned blogging" and, let me assure you, the phenomenon is alive and well.

I don't mean to say that there is no point in bringing technology into our classrooms. No, we have the responsibility to help our students learn how to effectively and safely use these new tools to extend and share their knowledge, make competent decisions, navigate "networked publics", and connect with those whose experiences can enrich their lives and their understanding of things they are passionate about. Our students need places where they can learn how to safely construct their online identities. They need to practice and acquire new media literacies. But the mere presence of technology in our classrooms is not going to help our students acquire these new literacies. Neither will using them to complete teacher-generated assignments. We have the responsibility to open up our walls and show our students that we want their passions and interests to grow beyond our physical classrooms, our class blogs, our textbooks, and our lesson plans. We also need to show them how to do it safely. It's time to reach beyond what we traditionally mean when we use the word "school."

But when our students reach beyond our classroom walls - even if it is with our permission or encouragement - we're not quite sure what to do. We stand there a bit sheepish, and we start thinking how to fit what they're doing into the course curriculum. How do we justify that brave act of opening our classroom walls? More importantly, how do we grade what the students have done? As Michael Wesch recently argued,

All of this vexes traditional criteria for assessment and grades. This is the next frontier as we try to transform our learning environments. When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions (Wesch, 2009).

In other words, "the pursuit of real and relevant questions" is too complex for our rubrics, checklists, and multiple choice quizzes. I believe that it demands that we get involved as co-investigators who assist students with their independent research and who also, through personal engagement as online learners and collaborators, model what it means to be successful as a learner. We have to become "co-conspirators" or, to use Vygotsky's famous term, "more capable peers," whose job is not to measure and evaluate but, primarily, to promote and support reflection and analysis in our students. As educators, we need to work on our role in the classroom as "passionate hobbyists and creators," we need to engage in learning in our classrooms, and in doing so we need to move towards a different model of assessment and evaluation.

"Become Students Again"

And that is precisely what I'm interested in - how do we redesign our outdated assessment and evaluation mechanisms to support our students as they venture outside of our classrooms and into interest-driven online communities?

I suggest that we follow and support our students. This isn't just about granting them leave to learn from and with somebody else in some online community that we've approved. This is also about traveling with them, not to supervise or hold their hand, but to advise as more experienced peers - to explore, learn alongside them, and help them reflect on what they are learning. It's about creating classrooms where, as Michael Wesch recently said, we can "become students again, pursuing questions we might have never imagined, joyfully learning right along with the others" (Wesch, 2009). We need to be there for them to show them how to learn. We need to show them that we're learning too, online and off. We need to show them that we reflect and set goals. We need to model those processes and learn to support our students in these new environments and interactions. It is our responsibility to help our students understand that learning how to learn means acquiring "a collection of good learning practices ... that encourage learners to be reflective, strategic, intentional, and collaborative" (James et al., 2007, p.28). Teaching our students, not as whole grades, not as classes, but as individuals, how to learn in the world where knowledge resides in webs, nodes, and multifaceted connections and correspondences is now our greatest responsibility.

Of course, the biggest question for me right now is: what does all of this look like in practice?



Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., Pascoe, C. J., and Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning.
James, M. et al. (2007). Improving learning how to learn. Classrooms, schools, and networks. New York: Routledge.
Wesch, M. (2009, January 7). From knowledgeable to knowledge-able: Learning in new media environments. Academic Commons. Retrieved January 7, 2009, from http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/knowledgable-knowledge-able

Promoting a Culture of Reading in Kenya

I returned from Kenya over a month ago and am still reflecting on the conversations that I had there with teachers, students, administrators, and officials at the Kenya Institute of Education. There's so much to think about and digest. The one thing, however, that I have been thinking about ever since I came back is the lack of reading culture in Kenyan schools. One of the main things that all English teachers we worked with wanted to learn from our workshops was how to encourage reading in their classrooms.

Miti Mingi Secondary School, Kenya

You may think that this problem is not unique to Kenya, that in many classrooms in wealthy developed nations students are also often uninterested in reading. I agree. As an English teacher in Canada I often struggled with this challenge in my classroom. However, in Kenya, this problem is compounded by some deep-rooted issues that have been part of the education system since Kenya gained independence in 1963.

First, almost all the students and teachers we came into contact with in the rural schools we visited speak English as their second or even third language. Yet, when teachers speak of encouraging a culture of reading, they invariably mean the culture of reading in English. In other words, they want to encourage a culture of reading in a language that students use very rarely outside the classroom.

Second, the Kenyan system of education is dominated by exams which play a crucial role in deciding the students' future. Results obtained on these exams determine whether or not the student can move on to the next grade, to high school, or to post-secondary education. If the results are not high enough, the student is almost always left without options.

English as a Second/Third Language

Kiswahili and English are both taught in Kenyan schools. Kiswahili is the language of instruction in grades 1 through 3, while English is taught as a subject. In grade 4, English replaces Kiswahili as the language of instruction and Kiswahili is taught as a subject until grade 12. The language policy is bilingual, but from what we've observed some Kenyans are monolingual, some bilingual, and some multilingual. In other words, most of the children we observed and most of the teachers we worked with speak three languages: they speak their mother tongue (Kikuyu in the region we visited), Kiswahili, and also English. English is not the language you hear on the street in small towns and villages in rural Kenya. It is rarely used by the students outside of class time.

What this means in the classroom is that the mother tongue or Kiswahili are used quite often. Occasionally, even the teacher uses the mother tongue or Kiswahili to explain challenging concepts (personal observation; Muthwii, 2004). Also, when students converse with each other, both in class and outside instructional times, they very rarely use English. I observed this phenomenon in every elementary and secondary school we visited.

English is therefore seen in very pragmatic terms. It is used to obtain an education and write exams. As a result, students do not use colloquial English, and it could even be argued that in a country where English is often a third language, there are limited opportunities for them to do so. As Commeyras and Inyega argue, "their instruction in English typically lacks meaningful interactive use in meaningful contexts" (2007). English is not the language of social interaction. Code-switching is very common in instructional contexts. The use of Kiswahili or mother tongue among students outside of class is the norm. Voluntary reading in English is therefore rare because English is perceived as a tool used only to pass exams and secure employment (Commeyras & Inyega, 2007).


This lack of interest in English is greatly exacerbated by the fact that, in Kenya, students write exams at the end of every grade. They must pass that final exam to proceed to the next grade. They also write a cumulative exam at the end of elementary school (grade 8). Known as the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), this exam determines whether or not the child will go on to secondary school and also the kind of secondary school he or she will attend. Then, at the end of high school, students write another exam, known as the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). This exam determines whether or not the student can be considered for admission to a post-secondary institution.

If a child fails either one of the exams, her educational opportunities end. She will not proceed to high school or post-secondary education. She cannot try again. Her entire life depends on two hours at the end of grade eight or grade twelve.

Miti Mingi Secondary School, Kenya

Needless to say, reading and the use of English are associated with formal schooling. One uses the language to prepare for and pass exams. Reading and writing in English are perceived as skills that students need to develop to function successfully in school, not something that a student perceives as valuable (or even usable) outside the classroom in her community and in social contexts.

So What?

Imagine trying to build a culture of reading in English in a classroom where the students see English only as a means to an end. It's a language they do not use in their daily lives outside of school. In fact, students in rural communities do not have many opportunities to practice the language in interactive and meaningful social contexts. This lack of what Commeyras and Inyega call "enabling environment" (2007) certainly contributes to the students' perception that English is a tool one must master only in order to study and pass exams. It is not personally meaningful at all. English is predominantly the language of academic contexts.

One could argue that reading in English could help the students increase their chances of performing well on their exams. Unfortunately, the exams consist of fill in the blanks questions, and some multiple choice and short answer questions. They certainly do not require too much critical thinking. Rote memorization is quite sufficient.

Can Anything Be Done?

While I agree that it is challenging to encourage students to use English outside of school where they seem perfectly happy communicating in their mother tongue or Kiswahili, it is imperative that the use of English in school change from purely formal and transactional to more expressive, interactive, and socially meaningful. One of the main barriers that has traditionally made this shift impossible is that teaching in Kenya is very teacher-centred. In addition, instruction in an English classroom is often limited to cloze tests, reading comprehension exercises, and short answer questions. Students are generally not given opportunities to express their opinions or engage in class discussions or debates. Chalk and talk dominates classroom interactions.

But, how do we encourage teachers in Kenya to adopt a more student-centred approach? How can we support them in this shift to a more participatory environment?

I think that the small, gradual steps - the approach we used this past summer - are necessary to help teachers move out of their current comfort zone and test themselves using a different teaching methodology. According to Commeyras and Inyega (2007), two research-based Kenyan documents (MOEST, 2001; Willis, 1988) suggest that teachers can promote greater interest in reading by reading aloud to their students. Furthermore, talking with students about the texts as preparation for independent reading can also be very effective (Willis, 1988). Of course, the challenge here is that this approach requires that the teachers themselves be committed and enthusiastic readers willing to share their personal stories and reactions with their students. I believe that the students need to see in their teachers a high level of authentic engagement with a text in order to be encouraged by this approach. Teachers need to learn how to communicate their passion for reading and they need support in learning how to initiate and sustain meaningful conversations about texts in their classrooms. This is not an easy task for a teacher who is used to lecturing and who every day walks into a classroom where the students have been conditioned to sit quietly and listen.

Teachers Without Borders - Canada. First Workshop with Secondary Teachers in Maai Mahiu, Kenya

I learned this past summer that creating a participatory environment in Kenya involves two steps:

1. Helping the teacher understand the value of the Socratic method and student voice in the classroom

2. Helping the teacher convey that value to students who have spent years in a teacher-centred system that rewards those who are quiet and equate learning with rote memorization.

The teachers who attended the TWB-Canada workshops in Kenya were very open to new ideas and most were very enthusiastic about creating a more student-centred environment in their classrooms. I look forward to meeting many of them again next summer and I plan to continue to work on encouraging independent reading and an open, participatory classroom culture.

Access to Reading Materials

The importance of independent reading has been addressed by the Kenyan Ministry of Education (MOEST, 2001). The ministry even listed a number of suggestions to encourage reading in Kenyan classrooms:

MOEST (2001) provides a variety of ways for encouraging students to read, including setting aside time each week to be used for reading in class; specifying the amount of reading to be done out of class and keeping a record to track the reading that the pupil has done; asking students to give oral reports of what they are reading; using resource persons to read to the pupils, modeling how they want the pupils to read; and rewarding effort made to read (Commeyras & Inyega, 2007).

The one barrier that still needs to be addressed, however, is the question of access. When we discuss independent reading in North America,  or in any developed nation, we don't spend too much time thinking about access to appropriate materials. We take for granted that students have access to libraries, either in their schools or in the community. We know that their parents can also purchase books or magazines. Access to reading material is not an issue.

In Kenya, things are very different. Efforts to encourage independent reading will be pointless if the students have no access to reading materials. While some schools we visited in rural Kenya had small libraries or book collections, most did not have any reading material except textbooks. Consequently, another goal for our next project in Kenya is to help improve access to reading materials by fundraising for paperbacks or magazine subscriptions that can be purchased locally to eliminate shipping costs.

In short, as I begin to prepare for next year's Teachers Without Borders workshops in Kenya, I think about how we can best assist Kenyan teachers in creating an environment in their classrooms where the students will be given opportunities to share their views, participate in debates, and use English in an expressive, creative way, not merely as a tool to help them fill in the blanks on a test. The teachers I met in Kenya were very open to making the kind of shift in their pedagogy that is required to ensure that their students have opportunities to move away from the formal and transactional uses of English and towards a more expressive and personal voice. At the same time, I realize that access to paperbacks and magazines will be crucial and I hope that, as a team, Teachers Without Borders - Canada will be able to raise enough funds to bring more books to Kenyan classrooms.

If you think you might be able to help, please let me know.


Commeyras, M. & Inyega, H. (2007). An integrative review of teaching reading in Kenyan primary schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 42(2), 258-281.

Ministry of Education Science and Technology. (2001). Teaching and learning English in the primary classroom: English module. Nairobi: Jomo Kenyatta Foundation.

Muthwii, M. (2004). Language of instruction: A qualitative analysis of the perception of parents, pupils, and teachers among the Kalenjin in Kenya. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 17, 15-32.

Willis, B.J. (1988). Aspects of the acquisition of orality and literacy in Kenyan primary school children (Kiswahili). Dissertation Abstracts International, 50, 433. (UMI No. 8908590).