Five surprising things I have learned in the BEZWA project about learning

Written by Kadri Kalle, Education Program Manager

Almost two years ago we started our BEZWA project (Building European Zero Waste Academy) and I can say that most of us in the team thought that we already knew how to teach zero waste topics. But in this time all of us have learned a lot and there is still much that is not widely known about how learning happens. Here I would like to share my five realizations about learning.

1 – The one who talks is the one who learns

When you think about it, it sounds so obvious. Of course, the one who is actively engaged in the learning activity, be it discussion or an assignment, is the one who learns the most. But still I have also found myself being the main talker in my workshops, because “I need to give them the necessary information”. We need to remember that brain is not a voice recorder, it doesn’t retain information by mere listening. Simply listening (or watching) is not learning. It can only become learning if there is a task, a problem, a question that needs to be worked through and only then is this new information being put to use and there is hope it can find its way in the long-term memory.

Who talks the most in your workshops?

2 – Learning doesn’t have to be fun and entertaining

This can sound controversial in times where everything needs to be gamified and look flashier. To say it more correctly: learning CAN be fun and entertaining, but it’s not the main purpose of a learning activity to offer that to the learners. The main thing learning activity does need to offer is creating mental effort for learners and that is not always fun. It can even be tiring, frustrating, boring. Fun and games are something that can distract both the educator and the learners from the main goals of the learning activity. It can make us feel like everything went so well and people enjoyed themselves, but in the end learning is work for the brain and this should be our main goal as educators. But important to mention here that while creating mental effort, learners should always feel emotionally safe and secure in learning activities.

How do you create proper mental effort for your learners?

3 – Learners’ praise for the educator does not necessarily mean the teaching was effective

This is very much connected to the previous point. Of course we all like to hear praise and that our teaching was enjoyable. But this also can distract us from what is the real aim of teaching: to learn something new. This can mean letting go of old beliefs and this is not always enjoyable. Again, learners’ praise CAN come together with learning something, but it’s not the indicator for learning. People can have fun without learning absolutely anything new or simply having the illusion of learning. So asking learners whether they liked your workshop or what they liked most is in fact quite useless in terms of learning assessment.

How do you usually assess whether your learners learned anything?

4 – Same teaching principles apply to all target groups and ages

One of the main things I asked in the beginning of our project (and what many of the participants at our trainings asked) is how to choose right teaching methods to different target groups. And while we do need to choose different tactics to 5-year-olds and 50-year-olds, the underlying principles are the same for both. For example, regardless of people’s age or professional background, we should get to know their pre-knowledge first as much as possible, so we could connect our teaching topics to that. Also every person needs to feel accepted and recognized as a someone capable of growth. Our teaching should stem from these principles, and only then adding there the layer of specific methods what is most suitable to put those principles into action. And in connection to point number 2, those methods don’t have to be something new and exciting. For example, to make people feel accepted, we simply need to properly listen to them.

Based on what do you usually select the methods for your workshops?

5 – Effective teaching means constantly acting against your experience and habits

This sums up most of the things I have learned in the past 2 years. I would say the big thing that educational psychology says is that effective learning is often not intuitive, meaning what we feel is effective learning, in the end probably is not. And our own learning experience since school has mostly also been quite the opposite to what the science suggests to the educators. Like the fact that it’s more effective to put the practice first and theory later in learning activities. This can feel really mind-boggling at first, yet many studies show that this is more effective than the classical theory first, practice later. But the real hard part is not only knowing these counter-intuitive things, but also acting based on that. Because believe me, it has taken me a long time to truly put these things into practice in my own sessions and I still struggle with the reflex of doing things how I was doing them before.

How much do you question and analyze your own teaching practices?

As a last thing, we as educators need to ask ourselves the honest question: when we are in front of the learners, do we mainly want to shine ourselves and show our expertise or do we want to help our learners understand new things? In other words: are the learners there for us or are we there for them? Because this is what determines what we do in our teaching sessions.

There is one more big (and simple) thing I have learned in this project. Curious to know what it is? For answers, you can check out our Zero Waste Training Handbook and our upcoming conference in Tallinn in September.

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