Over at the Rhizome Thinking community, the theme this week is about “independence” and learning. I’m been trying to think about this along a few varied paths.
First of all, check out this student TedX talk about learning and using Minecraft as a place for inquiry and learning.
Looking at the video and listening to the talk through this lens of “independent learning,” it occurs to me that the freedom this student has had to pursue his own path and make his own discoveries has opened up some interesting doors for him, and provided a way forward into a lifetime of inquiry. I love his reference to “play” and using blocks as kids. And his smile when he says “at the center of this course is a video game …” is priceless.
Then, I think to my own sixth grade classroom. How much independence do I really give my students? I like to think I give more but I fear I probably don’t. Listening to Dave Cormier’s video at the Rhizome Learning site this week had me thinking about the environment of learning in my classroom, in my school, in my district.
That all sounds great, and I agree. The difficulty in nurturing a truly independent classroom space is twofold. First is that teachers are under intense and increasing pressure to meet standards, and while one could argue the Common Core actually opens up plenty of avenues for student-led inquiry, there is still a stifling framework. These things must get done, is the mantra I hear in my head. The second point is related to the first, and a bit more alarming: students have been programmed to follow directions to the T and to submit work that meets the criteria exactly.
I notice this a lot with mentor work that we look at for various assignments. I’ll bring in a piece of student writing or show them my own, and sure enough, when the projects gets handed in by students, they are like little replicas of the mentor texts (mini-writing-mes). Year after year of rules and testing and teaching to the test have created this rigid and rather inflexible set of learning ideas in their heads, and when given freedom and independence, a fair number of students seem unsure of what to do and where to begin. We’ve drummed out their curiosity for fear of failure, and we are all to blame.
We actually ran into this with teachers, too, during a year-long Professional Development project that I co-facilitated in an urban elementary school. It was a school that had done so poorly on state tests that the state came in and oversaw curriculum and instruction, with canned lesson plans and scripted lessons. The teachers became like robots, delivering lessons that they had little investment in. Our project was completely based around classroom-inquiry projects, where teachers determined the topic of inquiry and then moved into it. For some, just shifting to this kind of thinking was a hurdle almost impossible to overcome. They didn’t trust their judgment anymore as teachers. It literally took months of support and inquiry and modeling to break them free of those shackles and become independent thinkers again.
So what can we do as teachers to help nurture our students?
Keep opening up doors for students to be passionate about ideas (I often look to the work of Paul Allison and Youth Voices for how this might unfold). Remain flexible as a teacher about students being interested in things you know nothing about (ie, Minecraft). Model for students what inquiry looks like — not just at the end with a finished product but from the start with the brainstorming that leads along many different paths. Trust that the grading/assessment may be important in moment but is of very little importance for the student’s life.
Allow for independence, even in a system where conforming to rules and practices and standards is common practice.
Peace (in the thinking),