“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

Dennis Sparks

I admire people who can say important things with concision and precision.

When the subject is a topic as complex as teaching and learning, I admire it even more.

Marion Brady did just that in a recent essay

“No textbook ever printed, no lecture ever delivered, no computer program ever written puts school subjects to more relevant use, more thoroughly engages every thought process, or more directly simulates creativity, than learning by doing while thinking about it.”

Put another way, “learning by doing while thinking about it” means learning through engagement in worthwhile, challenging activities that require thinking deeply about them both during that engagement and afterwards. 

That’s the kind of learning environment I would like all  students and educators to experience every day.

For students, that would mean deep, sustained engagement in meaningful long-term projects and in solving real-world problems with other students and adult collaborators.

 For educators, that would mean deep, sustained interdependent engagement with their colleagues, meaningfully supported by their leaders, as they address the most challenging issues of teaching and learning. 

While “presenters” and “motivational speakers” may play a minor role in such professional development, they are not its sum and substance.

 Instead, “learning by doing while thinking about it” means team-focused, hands on participation in lesson planning, assessment of students’ work, and seeking solutions to pressing classroom problems, among other things.

What’s your experience with learning by doing that includes ample time for reflection on the learning?

3 Responses to ““Learning by doing while thinking about it””


  1. 1 edgeekgirls November 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you Dennis…so well put! I would add that administrator teams, cabinet teams, governing boards and all other participants in the education community need to be engaged in “deep sustained interdependent engagement” that “ensures learning by doing while thinking about it.” Modeling needs to occur at all levels of our system.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm

      That’s really well said…. The only thing that I would add is that the professional learning produced by such engagement is essential in continuously improving teaching and learning for the benefit of all students. While it is important that senior leaders “set a good example,” the success of the work depends upon their robust professional learning.

  2. 3 Ellen Eisenberg November 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    One of the core elements of the PA Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC) is supporting reflective and non-evaluative practice. Our instructional mentors work with coaches to help them think about the teachers’ practices and also their own coaching practices. The coaches model reflective practice and help teachers think about their own classroom habits and what worked well in their classrooms. They follow the before, during and after (BDA) cycle of coaching where coaches and teachers plan together, co-teach or watch each other, and then reflect on, in and about their actions after time spent in the classroom. This cycle becomes a great way to collectively problem-solve and build teacher capacity, all reinforced by intentional planning and debriefing.


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