We recently interviewed Sharon Eagen, long time educator of students and teachers, whose thirst for learning has led her to pursue learning, training, and coaching opportunities across the country and around the world. While her story may or may not be too different from yours, her insights about learning are valuable to any educator.
What has been your experience in education? How would you say you got to where you are in your career today?
My experience in education has been quite diverse. Actually, I began my educational experience by homeschooling my kids. It was something I did quite reluctantly, just because of the situation we were in and ironically I didn’t feel equipped for it at that time. However, I soon found that I wanted to take what I had learned in this homeschooling adventure and get more involved in education. I soon had the opportunity to join the Philadelphia school district and go into the classroom. As a literacy intern, I went through some training, started my graduate degree at St. Joseph’s University, and was able to actually be in this inner city classroom for a couple years, specifically as a literacy teacher.
After a couple years, it became evident that God was moving our family to Michigan, and here I had the opportunity to actually start an all-day kindergarten in a Christian school where we relocated. I taught kindergarten there for about ten years or so before I moved into a literacy coach position, at first part-time while I was in the classroom, but soon I jumped into that role full-time. Over the years that followed, as I became an instructional coach, I found that I really wanted to learn more about how to help kids who are struggling, and I didn’t feel like I had the answers I needed. I had tried everything that was in my toolbox and I felt like I needed more tools. This drove me to become an educational therapist, eventually reaching a point where I was overseeing a staff of educational therapists.
Over the years, I began to search for more about how organizations and people manage change in general, and I ended up getting my master’s in psychology specifically for that reason.
This is how I learned about the Feuerstein method, which is specific to how our thinking works. This changed my focus from, What do my students need to learn? to, How do students learn? I was beginning to understand that the focus needs to be on teaching students how to learn, regardless of what the content is.
So my experience is kind of diverse in that I homeschooled, I taught in a public school, and I taught in a private school. Now I really focus mostly on the education of adults. I still work with younger kids and I do have clients who are children, but my work is primarily with adult learning. In an effort to help adults adapt, build resilience, and navigate change, I’m seeking to help adults learn how to learn.
What has been your favorite aspect of your years in education?
I think that across the board, from teaching my own children to teaching kindergarteners and first graders in very diverse settings, as well as now teaching and coaching adults, without fail my favorite aspect is that moment…that moment when students realize they can do it, when they realize they can get it.
Nothing excites me more than seeing that change in their eyes: Oh my word, I just did that. I get it. This makes sense to me. It’s just such a moment of excitement and confidence and hope. I like to focus on how that process of learning can apply to anything that people want to do, whether they’re learning something for a college class, or a five-year-old is learning how to tie his shoes, or someone is learning that they can change a behavior or habit.
I’ve loved all my different experiences, but the best is guiding people to a place where they have the confidence to believe that they can do it. This is especially true with those individuals who came believing, for whatever reason, I can’t do this. My teachers or parents tell me I can’t, or I’ve just experienced so much failure that I don’t believe I can. Helping them know that everyone has the ability, the potential for change and growth, and helping them believe that about themselves and recognize their capacity is absolutely my favorite aspect of what I do.
How has your thinking about education changed over the years?
I’ve definitely moved from thinking about what students need to learn to considering how they learn. I’ve moved from the mindset that a teacher is the giver of all knowledge and it’s the student’s responsibility to learn it, to the mindset that the teacher is a facilitator. As a teacher, it’s my job to stand between the student and the information or the experience or the knowledge they need to have, and I need to find ways to make it accessible to that student. That doesn’t mean I do the learning for them, but rather I am more aware of starting my instruction with the student as the priority rather than the content.
I think that when I first taught, I was very much focused on the idea that this is the knowledge that I need to get into the student. But now I look at my students and think, How am I going to make this knowledge accessible to them?
As I have worked with students through Mediated Learning, I have found that it has a level of intentionality and specificity in the learning process for the student. But there’s also this reciprocity, this give-and-take involved. There’s a clear meaning of why we do this and how we do this and why it matters. But also probably the biggest shift in moving to a Mediated Learning mindset for any teacher has been what we call transcendence, the idea that all this learning we do isn’t going to transfer. I will often say when I’m training teachers that they have to have some kind of closure to their instruction that says, What did I learn today? How did I learn it? Why does it matter? And where will I use it?
This kind of summary has to happen after an instructional period in order for there to be change. We know as human beings that if we don’t reflect, then we don’t realize the need we have for change.
Can you express the difference you see in student learning when they are able to shift their cognitive processes?
You know, there are a couple of things that happen when we can get students to understand that it’s not that they’re dumb or they’re smart, but that there’s a way their brains are designed to function that allows them to build their capacity. When students start to understand that, they become excited about what they could do: I’m making myself smarter. I’m building my intelligence. I can learn how to learn. It’s not a matter of either they know it, or they don’t know it. In education, we spend so much time focusing on testing to prove student capacity, but we don’t spend enough time building that capacity in a way that students can use it. And there’s a lot of talk about growth mindset and that’s an important piece. Carol Dweck’s work with growth mindset helps us understand this better, seeing that students can have a resiliency that allows them to take risks.
But the difference I see between students who understand how they learn and students who don’t is a level of peace, of confidence, of self-assuredness that their identity is not tied up in that letter grade on the test or on that report card, but rather they can say, I’m learning. And that’s an exciting thing. And they really can learn things when they shift those cognitive processes. When you consider a student who is focused on the grade and a student who is focused on the learning, the difference that shines through is a student who’s learning for a grade versus a student who is going to be a lifelong learner.
We often see students who got straight A’s in school, but when they go off to college, that first semester they’re just thrown because although they were able to get those grades and jump through the hoops in high school, they never really learned how to learn. Kids who haven’t had that experience of learning how to learn and understanding their cognitive process often fail out of college, not because they don’t have the capacity, but because they haven’t been shown that they have the capacity or they haven’t had to use their capacity or build it before. But those kids who have taken the risks and pushed themselves and gotten back up after they failed, they have a resilience that allows them to get through not just college or vocational training, but through life, understanding that they’re going to face hard things. Because they know the processes of learning, they can adapt to the changes of life because they understand how their brain is designed to function.
So that’s the difference I love to see: the kids who are resilient and go forth, always growing in their life and in their learning, rather than passively waiting for growth and learning to come to them. Those kids are happier. They’re more at peace. They’re more self-assured. It doesn’t mean hard things don’t happen, but those kids know that they can do hard things. God designed our brains to change and grow. And this is how we do it.
I would also say for myself that this was my same experience. I became more aware of my need for reflection. When I’m stuck somehow in life, or there’s a habit that I need to change, or I’m not moving in my spiritual walk, becoming more reflective opens me up to try new things, to take risks. The whole thinking process helps me to work through the challenge and by God’s grace and design, I am able to move forward and grow my capacity.