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What Engineers Can Teach Us about Learning: It Starts with Wonder
Mrs. Bernadette Gilmore

Engineers have long utilized a design process that involves a series of steps to come up with a solution to a problem. As in any field, the first try may not always be the best. In fact, their design process is iterative, meaning steps get repeated as many times as necessary to make improvements based on what was discovered through a failure. What a great analogy for learning - at any age, at any stage!

Deep, impactful learning must start with wonder. Students should be encouraged to be curious, ask questions, and think about what they want to understand. There is no magic that gets them to the final place of new knowledge, skills, and answers. They must consider and plan possible strategies and actions. Plans become actions, and then - to make learning active - it is important to reflect.

Reflection is critical, but it doesn’t automatically happen in learning. Students need to adopt the habit of doing so. The time spent evaluating the success of their plan for learning is vital. Monitoring their progress and making adjustments engage and transform the mind. It may well lead right back to planning if they determine that another strategy is needed. 

Ultimately, the goal is for students to “link" - that is, connect what they have learned to what else they already know, determine its importance, and communicate their knowledge. Without this step, they are just having isolated experiences with no real value, no insight, and no mental construction of meaning. 

Like the engineering design process, this intentional learning process moves through a series of steps that can circle back at any time to increase knowledge.

For Independence students, we have taken this metacognitive process and provided our students a graphic visualization. We call it The Path: Steps to Powerful Learning to bring awareness that students can take these steps and process wherever they go. It is as relevant in math as it is in art or English. As one of several important habits of mind, learning how to learn will help students throughout their academic career. Furthermore, it will be essential for them as they approach an array of challenges in their future careers, especially in this time of exponential change and an explosion of new knowledge.

Bernadette Gilmore is the Director of Academics & Curriculum at Independence, having previously served as Head of Lower School and a Kindergarten teacher during her more than two decades with the school.

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