Learning By Doing (and Planning to Do)

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend 
the first four sharpening the axe.” 
Abraham Lincoln

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that 
I may learn how to do it.” 
Pablo Picasso

The above quotes are both important when it comes to learning. As learners, we must spend time preparing to do and also engage in the actual doing. It is popular to proclaim that we learn best by doing and I tend to agree with the spirit of this sentiment. In fact, when speaking to educators about learning, I often start by defining learning as, “Doing what we can’t,” meaning that it is not until I can do something which I previously could not do that I have learned. At its essence, learning results in a change within us; when we learn, we are changed in some way: we now think differently or we possess new knowledge or we can now do what we previously could not. As important as doing is to the learning process, we must not discount, however, the importance of planning to do. I am reminded of the importance of both learning and planning to learn when I travel and have reflected often on the differences between my travel planning today and my lesson planning when I served as a classroom teacher for nineteen years.

I have traveled to all 50 states and 30 countries. Early on in my life as a traveler, I realized that the more I learned about a destination prior to actually traveling there, the more I would see and could do once I actually arrived. A good example is my trip to Pamplona, Spain several years ago to run with the bulls. I was a Hemingway fan as a young man and running with the bulls had been on my travel bucket list for many years. When I finally decided to make the trip, I also made the decision to learn as much as I possibly could about running with the bulls prior to actually arriving. I read several books on the topic, perused scores of online resources, watched a number of videos, and spoke with a few people who had already made the journey.

The background knowledge I gained from this research helped me immensely once I arrived. By acquiring this knowledge prior to my arrival, I knew where I wanted to stay, what I needed to wear, at what point along the path I wanted to start my daily run with the bulls, proper running etiquette, what would happen once we entered Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, and even what to do should I fall while running. Had I not arrived in Pamplona armed with all the knowledge I now possessed about running with the bulls, I would not have been as confident about what I would be doing and I may not have achieved my goals.

So, how does this relate to education? I think background knowledge still matters. Ultimately, the most enduring and impactful learning we experience comes from doing rather than knowing, yet knowing as much as possible before doing still makes sense. When speaking to educators, I often share the following on a slide:

Make no mistake: We need to intentionally push our students to act as the learners described on the right hand of the slide. At the same time, there remains a place in all classrooms for students to engage in the learning behaviors listed on the left side of the image. Our ultimate goal must be that students “make meaning,” “produce,” and “do” as learners. Yet, they are more likely to accomplish this when they “gain meaning,” “know more,” and “consume” what we have to offer them, so that once they begin “doing,” their chances for success in terms of enduring skills and knowledge are strengthened.

When traveling to any new destination, I believe that the more you know about the destination before you arrive, the more you will experience and learn about the destination once you are actually there. Ultimately, we learn by doing and, at times, it suits us--and our students--to simply jump right in and start doing. Yet, planning to do matters also and it is more often the case that we will do more and do better when we are thoroughly equipped to embark upon the doing. Empowering our students to actively "do" learning matters. Preparing them to "do" by building their background knowledge and equipping them with necessary skills also matters. Ensuring that our students are learning by doing and planning to do are two important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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