Maria Laws has spent the majority of her professional life dedicated to supporting learners of all ages and seeking to understand the science of learning. In addition to her extensive classroom experience, Maria has held positions as an instructional coach, curriculum developer, and professional development facilitator for a multitude of organizations including Stanford University, Ignited Education, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the University of California, Berkeley where she currently resides as a STEM education professor. On top of all this, Maria holds four teaching credentials, multiple education related masters degrees, and she has partnered in education research projects alongside cognitive scientists at WestEd and the UCB Graduate School of Education. In total, Maria has dedicated over 10 years of her life to scholarship focused on innovations in teaching and learning. Needless to say, when it comes to understanding what it means to be a learner, Maria is an expert.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Maria to ask her some questions about her experience not only as an educator and advocate but also as a learner. Her passion for the subjects of learning and teaching became apparent very early on. Her answers to questions about personal preferences quickly became avenues to longer conversations about the science of learning and the many tips, tricks, and insights she’s found to be helpful during her years in education.
We started our conversation discussing the ways in which Maria personally finds that she learns the best. Maria began her answer describing how there is a distinction between how people prefer to learn and how people best learn. She explained that, “…just because you prefer to learn in a way does not mean it’s the best way for you to learn that subject.” This distinction in education is an important one as an imbalance between what we prefer in the classroom and what actually works best for us as learners can be the difference between understanding a subject and struggling with it. Cognizant of this difference, Maria went on to explain that reading is the method of study that works best for her and the method that she prefers the most. This is mainly because she is an overall fast reader who really enjoys books but also because she is a hearing impaired person. Reading as an avenue for learning has the least blocks for Maria and is the easiest method to enjoy. Over time, though, Maria has learned that her historical preferences are a great starting point, but they are not the ending point.
“Through experience, I know now to move to other ways of engaging–making, viewing, talking–to make deeper connections.”
Maria’s most ground breaking and innovative work with kids has been integrating arts practices (visual thinking strategies, art making, etc.) into education. She uses these practices to make meaning, enhance the learning process, and engage students with passion and the excitement of discovery. In Maria’s words, “This concept of how we make meaning is at the heart of everything I am passionate about and how I learn, how students grow both their creative muscle and their ability to engage and persist through challenges. This is really what I am talking about when I say that its important to explore beyond what you think is the best way to do something, how you prefer to learn–exploring beyond those edges just shows you that you can do so much more, that you can expand your preferences and in the process, discover additional passions and talents.”
There are a multitude of factors that go into deciding what works best for a learner in a given setting or situation. The preferences of the learner as well as the subject both play a role, but these often aren’t the most common barriers to learning that Maria has seen in her experience. The considerations we’ve discussed so far are largely based on the learner and their unique traits, but some of the most common barriers to learning can actually come from teachers. Studies show that one of the most impactful aspects of a student’s learning experience is their relationship to their teacher. If a student thinks that their teacher believes they can learn a topic or skill, the student is much more likely to be able to learn that topic quickly. The opposite is true as well: if a student thinks their teacher does not believe they can learn a topic or skill, the student is much more likely to struggle with the learning process.
These considerations and many more can make or break a student’s learning experience. The above insights from Maria are just a sliver of what we discussed in our conversation and only a fraction of the many things that play a role in impacting a student’s ability to learn. Opening up important dialogues around these topics is exactly what the #HowILearn Campaign is all about. We pursue our vision to foster a world where 10 times more people are educated and positioned with a stronger purpose to take on the most critical challenges everyday through our commitment to understanding how people learn. That all starts with you. We want to hear about your learning experiences, your preferences, your personal study methods, and the challenges that you’ve faced in education. Armed with a deeper understanding of the education landscape, we can change the way we approach learning for the better. We encourage anyone and everyone to share your thoughts and experiences on Twitter and LinkedIn with #HowILearn and tag us @ahuraai to be a part of the conversations that will change the world of education for the better.
Author: Alex Murray, Operations and Client Success Intern, UC Berkeley ‘23