What Is Learning?

By Head of Upper School Liz Perry


It’s my pleasure to turn this week’s “floor” over to Liz Perry. If you’ve not met Liz, this post will illuminate why we are thrilled to welcome her into the St. Luke’s community.  – Mark


St. Luke’s Mission: To prepare students for a lifelong commitment to learning and social responsibility.

Lifelong learning is central to St. Luke’s mission. The “lifelong” part is easy to describe: we believe learning should continue long after students have completed their formal education.

But what is “learning”? We use the word every day, but what does it mean? Simply put, learning is making new memories. Some memories are short term, like holding someone’s phone number in your mind until you can write it down or dial it. In school, we want much more than shallow retention of information. We want students to develop mental frameworks that help them learn for the long term.

Researchers tell us that moving information from short term to long term memory is best accomplished when we do something with the information. So in a literature class, we don’t simply ask students to read; we ask them to annotate their reading. Just reading something is a weak way to learn new information. If we write margin notes about the information, or summarize it, or make a list of questions, or–when we get to class–are asked to agree or disagree with it, the information and ideas can move from short term to long term memory. This is why St. Luke’s classes focus on using information and engaging with big ideas rather than on passively receiving information.

Once an idea is in our long term memory, we can begin to use it over and over because we can easily retrieve it. If I learn the concept of irony, I can retrieve that idea and apply it to Macbeth. If I learn to isolate a variable in Algebra, I can retrieve that process and apply it in my Chemistry class. And if I learn about civil disobedience in a history class, I can even use that concept to argue with the Head of Upper School about dress code! Deeper learning means learning that lasts. Long after a student has written the paper or taken the exam, they retain the concept or the skill and can retrieve it to apply it to a new situation.

Arts and athletics are the places where this is readily visible in many schools. Students study the color wheel and immediately use that knowledge to make colorful images to express what they see in the world. A soccer player learns to create space in a drill, and then applies that technique right away in a game.

In the last few weeks, I have been observing Upper School classes for about three periods a day. What a pleasure to see our students and teachers in action. I sat with students in an American History class as they imagined that they were being asked to make a recommendation to the King of England regarding those troublesome American colonies. Students had their textbooks open and their notes in front of them, dates and names scribbled everywhere, but they were being asked to use that information to make an argument. How should the King govern his empire when a portion of it is near revolt? Students were moving that information from short to long term memory and developing a mental framework about empire that they can return to again and again.

I saw students in a Spanish class who begin every period with a “cocktail party” where they all stand up, cluster in the middle of the room, and chat with assigned partners on a topic designed to get students using new vocabulary. One recent day, the cocktail party partners chatted about the question, “What do you recycle in your house?” As the Spanish words for paper, plastic, and glass flew around the room, I heard students laughing and chatting in Spanish about many related topics, including their parents’ recycling habits! Research tells us that personal connections are key to moving vocabulary from short term to long term memory, as well as to creating a mental framework for retrieving and using it.

Long after they have written the paper, passed the test, graduated from St. Luke’s, and launched themselves into adult life, our students will forget many of the details of their coursework here. But they will be able to retrieve and apply the concepts and skills they learned here on the Hilltop, whether it’s how to tackle a difficult text, how to isolate a variable, how empires crumble, or how to speak conversational Spanish.

So “lifelong learning,” then, is not merely seeking out new experiences as we get older. Our graduates are lifelong learners because they can retrieve and apply what they learned at St. Luke’s for the rest of their lives.

Listen to Liz Perry’s September Meditation

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