Julius: My Path to a SMART Choice

May 19, 2015

My middle name is Julius. I mention my middle name not to allude to Ceasar, but to connect myself to my great grandfather Julius Peterson and through him to this piece of writing. He homesteaded a quarter section of land in southeastern North Dakota. My brother currently resides on that same quarter section and lives in the house that Julius built.

Julius also built a large barn, two granaries and a garage. All this and he worked the land, raised cattle and horses, and provided enough money to keep his family well-fed with clothes on their backs. Great grandfather Julius did not go to school. But according to the evidence he left behind, he certainly learned a whole lot.

I don’t wish to live the life Julius lived, but I am, and have always been, fascinated by what individuals like my great grandfather were able to learn, what they were able to accomplish. He could read and write. He apparently had a grasp of math, particularly geometry. He certainly must have known something about biology. His farm and his livelihood survived the Great Depression, so I would conclude he must have known something about ecology and economics. How did he learn so much? Certainly he was not a scholar; he discovered no new drug; he did not discover a new species; he did not write a book. In fact, I am quite sure he was considered a very ordinary person. And for some, I am sure he represented an unschooled rustic, who was not capable of learning what was taught in schools.

Julius has a bunch of progeny, some are linked through bloodline, while others are linked by their connection to the expectations that “educated” members of society, particularly educators, had for him. Educators did not think he could be taught. Trained maybe; but not educated.

In some ways those educators and their modern day equivalents, had it right – he was not taught per se, but he did learn, and he learned a lot. How?

I could provide a list of words that describe how, but it is as accurate to use one word – activity. My great grandfather was active. He engaged in hands on work which led to the need for problem-solving, analysis, critical thinking, among many other learning strategies and/or building blocks. He learned through doing.

Leap ahead to present day. Few are given the chance to learn via the path my great grandfather took. We apparently believe that is as it should be, because what we do in schools for the most part is nothing like how Julius accomplished his learning. We force kids to sit in desks. We force teachers to be the ruler of their classrooms. We emphasize in our teacher training, the importance of “classroom management” – a euphemism for keeping the kids in their desks and quiet.

And most tragic – though we continue to give lip service to changing what most of us have come to see as a failed system of education, we do not make any real changes.

Why? I don’t think it is because we are collectively lying to ourselves. I believe it is because we simply do not know how to make the change. And as important, if we do try to change, the complexity of making the change, and the support it requires overwhelms our efforts. We try, but we fail.

Until now. Now there is available a hands on learning approach that can be accomplished in a classroom; one that is self-sufficient without being constrained or worse, being contrived. And it is an approach that is supported in such a manner that it can be sustained day in and day out.

Creative Learning Systems’ Smart Lab is a high tech re-creation of how my great grandfather used to learn. It is hands on; it is self-directed; it requires a great deal of problem solving; it requires the teacher to learn; it requires the teacher model what was formerly described, but was never witnessed – the teacher revealing learning how to learn.

I did not come to Smart Lab easily. I looked a great deal. I even designed my own system. It was good enough to be purchased by the Boeing Company to be used to train new engineers by using hands on activities both online and in the classroom. But mine, and every other program I have come across simply were not what I would call containable and sustainable. They didn’t work well in a classroom and they were more an event than regular daily work.

Research backs up what for me was an obvious choice. Whether you approach learning from a neurological standpoint or lean more toward a psychological / behavioral slant, you will find numerous studies that give explanation for why what you see work in a Smart Lab is able to work, and do so over and over.

Let me provide to you an example of research, but research in this case that is highly readable and for most is enjoyable to explore. The following information is based on Dr. Daniel Willingham’s book titled, Why Don’t Students Like School? His book is more a survey of the current research and best practices than it is an individual trying to sell his specific approach. His book poses and answers a series of fundamental questions. I will share summaries of three questions and Dr. Willingham’s answers.

Question 1: Why is it difficult to make school enjoyable for students?

The brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking. Thinking is slow and unreliable. Nevertheless, people enjoy mental work, if it is successful. People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems. If schoolwork is always just a bit too difficult for a student, he or she doesn’t like school.

Cognitive Principle: People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.

  • Problem solving must be thought of as cognitive work that succeeds.
  • Problem solving brings pleasure.
  • Content typically does not maintain a person’s attention.

Implications for Learning and Teaching:

  1. Be sure that there are problems to be solved.
  2. Respect Students’ cognitive limits.
  3. Organize lessons around questions.
  4. Reconsider the best time to ‘puzzle’ a student.
  5. Accept and act on variation in student preparation.
  6. Change the pace.
  7. Keep notes on what worked and what didn’t work.
Question 2: What makes something stick in memory, and what is likely to slip away?

Your memory works something like this: if you think about something carefully, your memory assumes you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it stores it. Your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.

Cognitive Principle: Memory is the residue of thought.

  • If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it – the idea must first reside in Working Memory before it can be transferred to Long-Term memory. If memory does not achieve Long-Term status, it can’t be accessed by Working Memory.
  • Things that create an emotional reaction will be better remembered, but emotion is not necessary for learning.
  • How the student thinks about the experience determines what will end up in long-term memory – much of the ‘how’ is associated with the meaning of the experience.

What good teachers have in common:

  • They do not try to make the subject matter relevant to the students’ interests.
  • They pay attention to style – adopting one that fits their personality and which support an organized approach that connects personally with students.
  • Organize around the idea of a story
  • Causality
  • Conflict
  • Complications
  • Character

Implications for Learning and Teaching:

  1. Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.
  2. Think carefully about attention grabbers, especially those at the beginning of a lesson.
  3. Use discovery learning, but it must be carefully planned because what the student thinks about can be unpredictable – so some ground rules or constraints are needed.
  4. Design assignments so that students will unavoidable think about meaning – create learning situations.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use Mnemonics and don’t be afraid to label something as a factoid.
  6. Try organizing a lesson plan around the conflict.
Question 3: Why are abstract ideas, for example, the calculation of area, so difficult to comprehend in the first place, and once comprehended, so difficult to apply when they are expressed in new ways?

The goal of schooling is being able to apply classroom learning to new contexts. The challenge is that the mind does not care for abstractions. The mind prefers the concrete.

Cognitive Principle: We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.

  • Understanding is remembering in disguise.
  • Teachers must find out what learners know.
  • Knowledge will remain ‘shallow’ if it is only tied the thing known.
  • Deep knowledge is achieved when not only parts are known, but the whole is understood; particularly, the ability to see how the whole is impacted if any part is removed or changed.
  • The transferability of learning is influenced by being able to differentiate between the superficial structure and the deep structure. Many problems to be solved have commonality in how they can be solved, but it is typically at the deep level.

Implications for Learning and Teaching:

  1. To help student comprehension, provide examples and ask students to compare them.
  2. Make deep knowledge the spoken and unspoken emphasis.
  3. Make your expectations for deep knowledge realistic.


Smart Labs fulfill the highest expectations for solving each question. Smart Labs deliver to those methods, principles, and science that Dr. Willingham and those researchers about learning he studied concluded about how learning can best be supported.

I could cite more, but I think I have provided enough. Like the learning that it promotes, the best way to learn about Smart Labs is to experience them.

Most of the students I have taught over my years in education, business and industry, were more like my great grandfather Julius in their learning needs than what was offered them in a typical classroom. They needed activity; they needed hands on experiences; they need help in “connecting the dots” between theory and practical application. Smart Labs can help a teacher, a school, a district provide the right kind of learning atmosphere for all students.

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