Students directing their own learning.
We hear about it and talk about it all the time. We plan our days around it. We extol the virtues compared to the days of row-seating and podium-centered classrooms because of its amazing benefits in learning and growth.
What kind of people will our youth end up being and what sorts of experiences will they have over their lifetimes as they are steeped in this mindset from an early age? In my mind, the effects will be both enormously positive and difficult to bear upon occasion.
Until recent decades, our educational culture revolved around an indoctrination system of key tenants (reading, writing, math, etc) until one began to physically mature into adulthood. At that point, large segments moved on to trades and a wide range of employments while others moved on to college, where the remaining individuals were set free to explore the vastness and diversity of thoughts in arts, sciences, mathematics and engineering. I’m not saying that pre-secondary educational programs were 100% spoon-feeding operations. My own public and private experiences going back to the 1970s included room for creativity and self-expression. The homemade Middle Ages serf costume I created in 6th grade, complete with rags on my feet, is basic evidence of this.
We’ve ramped it up quite a bit since then, however. Earlier and earlier we’re directing our children to spend their days exploring subjects that interest them. Wider and wider is the world view becoming. Students are gaining freedom to design, build and produce products from their own research and their own brains.
It’s heady stuff! I felt compelled to note some of my own thoughts, fears and experiences.
Accelerated Evolution and Divergence of Life Philosophies
Great though it can be, diversity of thought can separate us from those who surround us the most intimately. We’ve always had separations within classrooms and grade levels based upon common interests and goals. It’s easier for this to occur now and it naturally carries over more into home life. There are adults today who voice concerns on how things are being done. Sometimes it’s simply confusion. Other times, there’s an element of disgruntled “That’s not how we did it.” all the way to “I’m not comfortable with my child doing this.”. What excites a child’s mind may not mesh with the traditions and practices of the family, leading to fractures and conflicts. We need to remember this as we move through our interactions with students and the wider society.
On the opposite side, children also have new today to connect with others they would not have had access to in prior times. Therefore, the child with a fascination with the violin or anime can find someone to talk to either in school or online. These connections based on shared interests can bolster a nascent interest and belief in self. “I’m weird.” becomes “I’m not alone.”.
If students are to lead their own learning, we need a framework big enough to catch as many students as possible within a net of safety, support and hope. They will be the leaders of this system soon and by setting them up as best we can, our future is more sure to be successful.
Larger Potentialities for Both Personal Failure and Success
There was a time when you grew up knowing how your work life would turn out. Children mirrored their parents’ roles to a large degree, with small improvements that led to slow-paced advancement in each generation’s means. Families had professions (farming, dentistry, factory jobs, small businesses) that were taken up and passed down to the next generation.
Today, we press for students to decide. We give them as wide a spectrum of options as we can so they can decide what directions they wish to fly. Students from humble beginnings can rise on their drive, creativity and initiative to levels unheard of in their family histories.
However, there is a real fear in our youth and our older workers, that this is a faulty, dangerous dream. Companies and workers no longer hold each other in such high respect that a long-term social contract can be drawn. Opportunities seem held for those with connections, not inventive concepts worthy of investment. Advanced degrees are demanded for even the most basic of positions, further distancing those who stumble or who have minimal means, to being able to flower into self-sufficient members of society.
Anxiety runs high in our world today. We would be wise to discuss this and work with it. How do we ensure that the exploration will lead to a life that can be lived and not one that is lost?
Closer to Star Trek Federation or Annihilation
I confess that I religiously watched Star Trek The Next Generation while in high school and college. I loved the concept of all sorts of beings working together for common benefits and exploring the universe. I could never see how it could actually ever happen in real life, however. The Earth back in the years when this show aired, 1987-1994, was so mired in fears and hostilities between countries, we all feared for this single rock, let alone the cosmos.
This was before the digital age we live in today, where I can chat with someone in South Korea or London instantaneously. We can relate so easily. Students today converse and study together across town, across country and increasingly, around the world. It’s unbelievably exciting. Student-led learning can build bridges which might help make dreams like those Gene Roddenberry had, someday and in some fashion, become a reality.
Unfortunately, the spread of hate and exclusion can move just as fast as the speed of friendship and sharing. Schools need to give time and tools towards concepts of inclusion, how to resist hate and how to excise its power. Culture as a whole needs to pay attention to this. With so much power available, hate and hostility cannot just be left alone to wander where they wish. It could destroy all we hope and work for.
In Hope-filled Summary
We live in a time with more potential than any other. The risks and rewards are equally higher. We can do this. It takes never-ending hope, flexibly working together and always going back to who we’re doing this for in the first place: our children and the future.