Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Will You Learn Today?

I saw this yesterday at the entry to the Idea Factory at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago while visiting with my children.  It was a simple invitation for the children to come explore and learn.  Underneath, staff members wrote questions that rotated throughout the day to guide the exploration and assist parents in helping connect the activities to broader learning.  It made me wonder why we don't begin class this way every day?

Students begin school with a desire to learn, but often by the time they reach the secondary grades the joy of learning has gone out from them, replaced by a resignation that this is what they must do because the state, their parents, and the school have mandated it.  The joy that I saw as I watched my own children (ages 9 and 13) as they explored the museum's various exhibits and thought about what they were doing, trying new things, learning as they experienced new sights and sounds was a joy for me to watch.  It also got me thinking about how we may return this joy of learning to schools and in particular about two recent reading events.

The first reading event came when our trip to Chicago began, as I believe all family vacations should begin, with a trip to the local library to pick out books to read while we were gone.  I chose Bill O'Reilly and Matt Dugard's follow up to their best seller Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy which was good but not as good as Killing Lincoln.  It was my daughter's choices that intrigued me.  My youngest chose books that were stories about gymnastics, not surprising since she longs to be the next Gabby Douglass.  Additionally, she is my child that already knows what she wants to do when she grows up-go to Purdue and become a veterinarian.

It was the choices of my oldest daughter that intrigued me.  She did not choose novels, a book from a series, or books geared towards teens.  Rather she chose three books on photography.  For the past 6 months or so she has been saving up her money to purchase a new digital camera with removable lenses.  She has posted over 1100 pictures in the 4 months she has been allowed to have an instagram account and has even set up a secondary instagram account for her more artsy pictures.  She loves photography and it was very cool to see her choose to read and learn more about it.  Will this lead to a future job?  I am not sure, but for a student who when I ask what she wants to do says, "I don't know" it was a joy to see her follow her passion.

The second reading event occurred the morning of our museum trip when I read following article on 20% Time by AJ Juliani in Edutopia and this blog post on 10 Reasons to Try 20% Time also from AJ.  The article highlighted how schools could utilize this concept from Google to help inspire their learners to engage more in the learning process.  In short, it would allow students to daily ask of themselves "What do I Want to Learn Today?" and then pursue that learning.  Moving to a system would require a radical change by schools, teachers, and administrators-most because it would require the system to allow students to be in more charge of their learning and require us to trust that they were doing so-which might be the greatest challenge.

We regularly speak about learning about our students so that we can tap in to their interests to help connect learning to something they enjoy when they don't see the connection to what they are learning.  But what do we do, when what they are passionate about doesn't fit in to one of our curricular areas or can be measured by a state mandated test at the end of the year?  One way to start this process though may be through giving students a limited amount of time to define what they want to learn, and then supporting that pursuit at the same level we support their learning of state mandated items.

Special thanks to my colleague Reid Gault (@reidgault) the principal of Lincoln Junior High School in Plymouth, IN.  In the past 6 months, since he finished the book Inevitable,  he has been pushing my thinking about how we educate students.  He has continued to innovate at his school, bringing in student choices that allow them to choose their educational path.  In the past year Lincoln has begun a school within a school via the New Tech Network  focusing on project based learning and this year will add a SOLE program in which students in the SOLE study hall will have the opportunity to choose their own learning path to explore a passion of their own.

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