Teachers as Learning Conditioners


 
“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” - Albert Einstein

 


Have you ever had a light bulb go off in your head?  You know, that feeling you get when you suddenly think of an ingenious idea, make a discovery, or have an epiphany.  Well, if you have—which is highly probable—then you have experienced what Thomas Edison felt when he came up with the idea of the light bulb back in 1878.  

The original incandescent lamp is arguably one of the most ground-breaking inventions that resembles the light bulbs many of us still have in our attics today—even though it was initially created over 140 years ago.  In fact, Edison's invention of the light bulb is so profound that we as a society now use the light bulb to symbolize a brilliant idea. What I find most surprising, is that we tend to remember Edison for his product, but not for his process—which I would argue, is far more impressive than the invention itself.

As a boy growing up in the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Edison only spent a few years in school, before he dropped out and began learning at home for the remainder of his education.  It didn't take long before he built himself a laboratory in the basement where he would conduct science experiments. According to the Franklin Institute, "Edison's mother, Nancy, knew her son was fond of chemistry and electronics, so she gave him books to read on the subjects. One book explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home; Thomas did every one in the book" [1].

Not only did his mother provide books about chemistry and electricity, she also provided Thomas with the conditions that were most suitable for him to learn and flourish on his own.  A biographer of Edison once noted: "His mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy" [1].  Because of this, Edison developed the knowledge, skills, and experience that ultimately led him to patent 1,093 of his inventions, including the light bulb.

What often gets left out of this story is the amount of time, effort, and failed attempts that it took Edison and his team before they were able to become successful in making an effective incandescent light bulb. In fact, from 1878 to 1880 Edison and his associates worked on at least three-thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp—which makes light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called a filament) until it gets hot enough to glow [1].  Edison and his team were finally able to produce a high resistance, incandescent electric light by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in a glass vacuum bulb that delayed the filament from melting [1]. The only problem was that they needed the electric light to shine brighter and longer, so they decided to use the filament material as a variable in their experiments.

Edison needed all the persistence he had learned years before in his basement laboratory. He tested thousands and thousands of other materials to use for the filament" [1].  Before I got through," Edison recalled, "I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material" [1].  It was only when Edison decided to try a carbonized cotton thread filament did he have a breakthrough. When voltage was applied to the completed bulb, the filament began to radiate a soft orange glow that burned for about fifteen hours.  And after several iterations later, patent number 223,898 was given to Edison's electric lamp" [1].

Out of all of the inventors in the world, there was something uniquely different about Edison.  It wasn't his creativity, intelligence, or even his determination for success.  What makes Edison stand out as an inventor was his understanding of, and appreciation for the learning process.  Edison epitomized the concept of a lifelong learner when he once said:

“I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” [2] 


From this one quote, Edison was able to portray his positive outlook on education, his drive for solving problems, and his incredible love for learning.  He had the extremely rare perspective of looking at challenges as opportunities for growth, and learning something new from every mistake he made. 

Edison wasn't the first person to ever come up with the idea of a light bulb, but he will forever be remembered for his contributions to the incandescent lamp.  And even though there continue to be innovations to the light bulb—such as halogen, fluorescent, and LED bulbs— Edison's work with light bulbs was a spark of brilliance on the timeline of invention [1].

What I find particularly interesting about this story is that it sheds light on the learning experience, effort, and teamwork that were needed in order for Edison to invent the light bulb.  Edison was not an "overnight success" even though that is how the media often portrays him—as well as many other highly successful people and events for that matter.  We are usually left in the dark on stories like these because as readers, we prefer to consume the highlights of success, rather than learning about what it takes to rise to the top. 

There are three things that we can learn from Thomas Edison's untold story:

  1. Edison had a team of associates that contributed to his success.
  2. Edison had the curiosity, resilience, and mindset that allowed him to succeed.
  3. Edison's mother, Nancy was able to provide him with the conditions that were most conducive to his learning.


While each of these takeaways is extraordinary on its own, I would like to take a moment to briefly unpack just how remarkable Nancy's role was to the success of her son's career as an inventor.  Not surprisingly, Nancy Edison was a formal school teacher, but did not actively practice as she was busy taking care of her family.  She did, however, home-school Thomas whenever she felt like his local schoolhouse was not meeting his intellectual needs [3]. Because of this, she was able to instill her love of learning and her philosophy of education in Thomas, as well as supplying him with the time, space, and encouragement that he needed to excel in his studies.  Therefore, by home-schooling Thomas—as a professionally trained teacher—Nancy was able to effectively provide her son with the learning conditions that put him on a path to success.

The second half of this section will go into more detail about learning conditions and how they can help students to reach their full potential in the classroom and beyond. But first, we need to draw attention to the importance of our most basic human needs before we can even begin to think about the process of learning.  Put simply, we need to survive before we can thrive

When Dr. Abraham Maslow published his Theory of Human Motivation in 1943, he proposed that humans must have their most basic needs met before they can increase their individual abilities. In his theory, Dr. Maslow developed a five-stage model that depicts a hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often presented as a pyramid where the most fundamental human needs are at the base (See Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


As you can see from this visual representation, Maslow not only ranks human needs, he also compartmentalizes them using three different methods.  In the first method, he groups human needs into five separate categories: physiological needs (food and water), safety needs (shelter and safety), belongingness and love needs (friendship and community), esteem needs (integrity and prestige) and self-actualization (individual achievement). A common joke among technology leaders is that Maslow's pyramid should be updated to include Wi-Fi as the foundational layer under physiological needs as we have become totally dependent on internet connection as a society. Using his second method, he separates these five categories into three sections—basic needs, psychological needs, and self-fulfillment needs.  And in his third method, he splits these three sections into the dichotomy of deficiency needs and growth needs [4].

In his Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow claims that deficiency needs affect human motivation very differently from growth needs (See Figure 2).  He goes on to explain that deficiency needs and motivation have a positive correlation—when one goes up, the other goes up.  Whereas, growth needs and motivation have a negative correlation—when one goes up, the other does down.  In other words, when deficiency needs are high, human motivation is high.  And when deficiency needs are low, human motivation is low.  For example, when we are famished, we will fight tooth and nail to find something to eat. But, when our stomachs are full, we aren’t interested in scouring for a meal. 


Figure 2: Need vs. Motivation


The opposite is true between growth needs and human motivation. You see, when growth needs have been met, human motivation is high.  However, when growth needs have not been met, human motivation is low. For example, if Sarah is confident in her abilities and is able to use her talents and strengths in her career, she will work hard to accomplish her goals.  But if she does not feel fulfilled in her current position, she will succumb to the status quo.  So to summarize this concept, motivation decreases when deficiency needs are met, but motivation increases when growth needs are met [4].

It is important to note that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has had several iterations from its original inception over the years.  More specifically, Maslow eventually realized that the order of human needs did not matter as much as he originally thought when he first published his theory.  By the time he revised his last iteration in 1987, he learned that there were likely other categories of growth needs, as well as the idea that our behavior is likely driven by most or all of our needs, not just a single one at any given time. 

So what does this mean for education?  For one, it means that if a student comes to school in the morning without their deficiency needs met—they are hungry, tired, scared, or neglected—there is little to no chance that any significant learning will occur that day.  In the Inspiration section of this book, I shared an example about how important it is for students to feel emotionally and physically safe in order to effectively learn.  And secondly, there are certain conditions that teachers can provide to their students that not only meet these needs—they can also help them to succeed. 

In a school setting there are certain factors that we can control, and there are factors that are out of our hands.  For example, it is highly unlikely that teachers will be able to meet the basic needs of their students that Maslow has identified.  However, with the right conditions, we can help students meet their psychological needs in order to enhance their potential for significant learning if we are able to build their self-esteem by developing positive relationships, igniting inspiration, and providing encouragement and support.  What's more, teachers can even provide conditions that will allow students to meet their self-fulfillment needs that are necessary for individual growth.  To give you an idea, teachers can spark curiosity in their students, allow for autonomy and agency on assignments, and help students identify their individual strengths and talents.  These are just a few of the ways in which teachers can help their students meet some of their deficiency needs, as well as their growth needs to create more effective learning opportunities in the classroom.


Teachers as Learning Conditioners

Now that we have addressed some of our most underlying needs, I would like to kick it up a notch by underscoring the conditions that are needed to maximize learning.  In order to capitalize on students' experience in education, we need to provide them with appropriate learning conditions.  I define a learning condition as any element that is essential to the learning process.  Some examples of learning conditions include—but are not limited to—adequate time, conducive space, effective tools and strategies, and positive relationships.  I would like to propose that each learning condition can be grouped into one of these six categories:  physical, environmental, psychological, emotional, cognitive, and social. 


Figure 3: Basic Needs to Survive vs. Learning Conditions to Thrive


When we apply these six categories to both basic needs and learning conditions, we begin to see the difference between what it takes to survive, and what it takes to thrive (See Figure 3).  For example, cognitively speaking, a person needs some form of knowledge, understanding, and meaning in order to survive. But if you are provided the opportunity to be creative, think critically, and reflect on your experience, then you should be able to thrive intellectually.

In order to provide these learning conditions to students, our teachers need to act as learning conditioners.  I define a learning conditioner as someone who provides students with the elements that are most conducive to learning.  Just as air conditioners regulate the humidity, ventilation, and temperature in a building or vehicle—or how hair conditioners make hair softer, healthier, and easier to manage—learning conditioners foster relationships, resources, and abilities to increase students' readiness to learn.  For example, Thomas Edison's mother acted as a learning conditioner to him, because she was able to provide him with the opportunity, time, space, learning materials, and encouragement to pursue his passion in life.  

Earlier in this section we learned how Nancy Edison acted as a learning conditioner to her son, Thomas, which resulted in one of the greatest inventions this world has ever seen—the light bulb.  The rest of this book will attempt to illuminate the conditions that amplify learning, as well as provide research and examples that give meaning, context, and relevance to the classroom.  In an effort to provide a bit of a teaser, you will dive into these learning conditions with eye-opening correlations between elements such as mindset and grit, curiosity and fearlessness, and relationships and robots, as well as how you can strategically apply these conditions to become a better learner.  Let's get started. 


References

  1. “Edison's Lightbulb.” The Franklin Institute, 19 May 2017, https://www.fi.edu/history-resources/edisons-lightbulb.
  2. Smithsonian Magazine. “7 Epic Fails Brought to You by the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Nov. 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/7-epic-fails-brought-to-you-by-the-genius-mind-of-thomas-edison-180947786/
  3. Foundation, Edison Innovation, and Edison Innovation Foundation. “Thomas Edison – Home Schooled by His Mother.” Thomas Edison Muckers: Your Blog for Everything Edison, Everyday, 11 Dec. 2019, https://www.edisonmuckers.org/home-schooled-by-his-mother/comment-page-1/.
  4. Mcleod, Saul. “Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, 29 Dec. 2020, https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.

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