My goal this year has been to give students as much of an active role in their own education as possible. For 2-4 periods each day, students have the freedom to learn based on their own curiosities, interests, and strengths.
It’s an interesting shift as an educator because I’m consistently battling with myself on how best to “coach” my students. What structures should I provide? How much of a ‘nudge’ or ‘push’ in a certain direction is necessary to spur deeper learning? Is it okay if a student wants to do the same thing day after day if that means they are never exploring new areas? Like most things, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that it varies student by student.
Overall, I’m trying to focus on “learning how to learn”. Interestingly, we’ve had to do a lot of “unlearning” in order to accomplish this!
Learning in schools has traditionally been a dynamic where the teacher is very active and the students are passive. The teacher is the one “doing all the work” of learning – deciding what to learn and when, curating the necessary resources, planning lessons, designing activities, explaining concepts. The student has to listen and meet expectations set upon them and while, yes, there is a lot of ‘work’ involved on the students’ part – I would argue that they may learn the content, but they’re not necessarily learning how to learn.
I think a lot of educators feel pressured by content. Content tends to be the driving force – it’s “what” we’re learning. The processes of learning are there – but they’re just how we get there, in service of the content. Our curriculum has a lot of context expectations and we’ve got to cover them. This is not “wrong” – it’s definitely the way I was taught to teach, they way I saw my mentors teaching, and the way I taught for many years. But I’m trying to flip that.
I want the processes to be what we’re learning. The content is just one possible example. In Ontario, both processes and content are in our government-provided curriculum document but my experience has been that the content is given much more emphasis. It doesn’t have to be, though. I’m constantly reminding myself to not panic about hitting every specific content expectation but to focus my efforts on modelling and emphasizing the processes.
When we live in a world with Google in our pockets, memorizing content and facts is something we can “outsource”. That will only be effective, though, if we are masters at the processes of learning – how to find and evaluate information, think critically, synthesize the new information, form new conclusions, use what we’ve learned to make an impact (on ourselves or others), communicate our thinking, etc. But not only do we need to research, we need the self-motivation to want to learn, to want to better ourselves and our surroundings – so processes of goal setting and reflection are of the utmost importance. But it’s not all facts and data – creativity and the processes of idea generation, constructive collaboration, experimentation, tinkering, making, etc. – these things are all key components as well.
All this to say that in order to make time for new ways of teaching and learning, I’ve had to let go of my old ways of teaching and learning. Students take time to make this shift, too. This is what I mean by “unlearning” before we can learn. Because I want my students to be life-long, self-directed learners – I have to give them time to practice those skills. Like most things, some excel at it and others may struggle and need more guidance.
In order to try to capture a snapshot of it in action, I’ve been creating vlogs. I wander the room with a camera for about 10 minutes, peeking in on what different groups of students are up to at that moment in time. You can watch by subscribing to our YouTube channel.