Archive for category learning

How a Virtual Learning Environment Can and Should Help Learners

Jeff Borden gave a great presentation on the rationale of why and how online learning can help students and teachers. His talk was not full of the often empty rhetoric about how “digital learners” are different from the rest of us. I’ve thought and written about this on my blog ( Jeff said the learners haven’t changed–the way they and we learn has changed. I think the sooner we include everyone in the conversation about learners the better. No one benefits from creating a divide between so-called digital and non-digital learners. Another point that Jeff made was that students like technology because they like variety. We all like variety–young and old. Online learning can help address this deep need inside of all of us.

Another important way Jeff made for the case for online learning is that the technology can meet the many needs that teachers have everyday. As teachers, we want our students to write more, to think more, to create more. Online technology tools can help us achieve these goals. By using some very straight-forward tools effectively, we can get a lot of return for our investment. What really came through in Jeff’s talk was that he wasn’t just a “tech head” going off on the cool new tools. It was very clear that he uses these tools in actual classrooms. It’s great to hear from someone who has “the goods” and can help teach and inspire others.

Note: This blog entry was also posted at


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“When am I ever going to need this?”

Every teacher has heard this question from students at one time or another. “When am I ever going to need this?” they ask. Sometimes teachers gloss over these questions, other times they retort with the empty response of “I had to learn it so you should too.” This type of question from students isn’t one that can be passed off flippantly. It’s exactly the type of question that good teaching fosters. If we as teachers don’t have a clear answer to it, then what’s the purpose of what we do?

Some educators have misguided answers to this question. “You will use math if you become a banker,” they say. “Let’s bring in a banker and have him/her talk to you about how they use math.” Seriously? If teachers need to bring a banker in to convince students that math is important then they clearly don’t understand the question. And they don’t understand banking either! Students aren’t convinced by pat answers or vague references to professionals “out there.” They need real answers that they can use each day in the classroom.

Early in my teaching career, I learned how important purpose is to the classroom. Since then, I have begun each semester with this question:  “when will you ever need this?” It’s one of the first things I ask them. As they think about it, I even chide them with comments like “Unless you are ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ you will never need to know about what we are going to study.” Or, “I’m pretty sure you will never be at the water cooler at your future job and say to a coworker, ‘What about those crazy Minoans.'” I press them to probe deep into the question why. You’d be surprised how many different answers they come up with–and they are real answers.  In our brainstorming sessions, students come up with no less than 15 solid reasons they need to take my class. I don’t teach anything particularly unique or useful. They are just regular social studies classes: Ancient Civilizations, World Geography, Psychology, Government, Colorado History, etc. As the classroom conversation progresses, we even throw in math and science to the mix. Sure, students understand that they aren’t going to love every subject. But they do have good reasons for why they are studying them. They know that they know that they need to learn about the world and that everything in their studies doesn’t have to have applicable to their life today. Of course good teachers know how to connect their content to everyday life but you can’t always do that.

Surprisingly, there is one answer that students rarely think of. To me it seems to me to be the crux of the reason why students need to be educated: it strengthens their brain. We know from years of neuroscience research how young brains develop and grow. We know how important the environment (i.e. education) is on the outcome of the person. Sad but true, I realize that very few people are going to need to know about the Assyrians or how to use the quadratic equation in their future careers. However, everyone is going to use their brain. So, when are students ever going to use what they learn in class? Every day! A good coach knows that physical exercise like push-ups helps improve his/her athletes’ performance. No one likes them but they all know it’s not about the push-up–it’s about the end goal: a strong body. Education helps strengthen the mind. 

Purpose is a powerful thing. Even if students don’t ask it aloud, they are wondering about the purpose of education in their busy brains. “When am I ever going to need this?”  There are simple and valid answers to this question. Our job as educators is to help them find that purpose.


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