I’m knee-deep in the first of many Master’s courses I’ll be taking to get a degree in instructional design from George Mason. My plan all along has been to throw much of my work up here to get feedback from a wider audience than the classroom walls. The course has started with some basic introduction to learning theories like behaviorism and constructivism. This week we were asked to read the article Learning on Their Own Terms which describes Fairhaven School, a Sudbury school in Marlboro, Maryland where “learning” is a decentralized activity that’s student-led. No homework, no tests, no grades. We were asked to write a reflection on the article and below was mine. As a quick sidenote I have to type these in Word and the inability to easily link to items or embed images and video is killing me, so I’m going to make use of my blog to embellish just a bit by adding that kind of context to the piece.
I have to admit I loved this article because it’s an approach that I simultaneously agree wholeheartedly with and want for my own child, and yet I’m deeply uncomfortable with it as a result of growing up in a world where this constructivist attitude towards education is dismissed as “not real learning”. Why is it that states like Virginia hold their standardized testing to such high regard, and yet study after study proves that the learning happening as a result of these tests is shallow and leaves the learner ill-prepared for college and the real world. The question “what does learning look like” is extremely provocative and I worry that all too often that question is dismissed outright in favor of modeling our approach to teaching right out of the factory-style classrooms of the 60s. Sit and do what you’re told, there will be a test on this, I don’t care if you’re not interested, this is important.
A great example of where this falls apart is in math. I follow a blogger by the name of Dan Meyer who is constantly exploring how math teachers approach problems. All too often an instructor will setup a question, perhaps with a diagram like an isosceles triangle, and ask the student to solve for some letter of the alphabet. Where is the engagement in something like that? Would I recognize that diagram in a real life situation if it hit me over the head? Meyer approaches this with a method he calls “Any Questions?” or #anyqs for short. Show a picture or video that evokes your students to start asking questions of their own. If you choose the right short video or picture you can almost guarantee your students will ask the right questions. It’s student-led, but the teacher plays a very real and important role in guiding that learning.
Constructivism is an important part of growing up in my eyes, we learn by experiencing, failing, researching, and finding our own path. Teachers aren’t dismissed in this world, rather they play an important part to help guide that learning. If we really want to prepare our students for the scary “real world” whatever that means, I think it’s an essential approach. An obvious weakness to this method is a result of the structured credentialing system we currently have where learning that looks like Fairhaven isn’t good enough on its own to get into college or perhaps show an employer. But we’re already seeing the explosion of the world wide web disrupting higher education with exactly this decentralized type of learning. Do you think an employer cares whether a kid dropped out of college if he’s an amazing programmer and built Facebook in his dorm room because he was interested in it? The lines are blurring and all too often I’m left with more questions than answers.