summer schoolA fascinating article by Starr Sackstein has just appeared in Edweek blogs.

In it Sackstein describes a philosophy of teaching and learning that I can really relate to – the difference between classes of obedient robots that pass exams and classes of natural enquirers who become and remain passionate lifelong learners who are fascinated by learning and love to ‘know stuff’, just because.

As Sackstein says, simply following directions is not good enough in the modern world. Unless we are after the suppression of innate curiosity, natural talents and the vast reservoir of energy that all children possess then it is preposterous to chain them down in such a prescriptive and limiting fashion. The designation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ knowledge together with the imposition of teacher-directed learning (and styles) is counter-productive in the development of curious, tenacious and energetic learners.

Sackstein argues that classrooms “must be rich, adventure producing, risk promoting atmospheres that allow students to be naturally curious, ask sometimes unanswerable questions and promote skills that seek new solutions.” This is a fantastic concept and one that I totally agree with. It can be challenging for teachers with this philosophy to get the children into the same mindset when they are currently (in many UK schools) kept in a state of obedient silence, punished for daring to disagree. When it does happen though the release of ‘learnophilia’ is explosive and massive. From silent, repressed students we nurture young people whose enthusiasm and energy for learning is boundless.

Putting students in charge of their own learning empowers them to develop learning skills that are tailored to the individual. Allowing them to make ‘mistakes’ during the process also lets them understand their own processes for learning, developing and enhancing their ability to recognise what works for them and to move away from what doesn’t. By providing a ‘support scaffold’ that is tailored to each student’s needs the teacher then helps to co-create not only the knowledge and ability to use that knowledge in a wider setting but also the meta-skills that are so important, yet considered ‘soft’ by many.

First Lego LeagueI’m not totally in agreement with Sackstein’s suggestion that “One way we can change learning environments is getting rid of grades and deemphasizing the importance of marks.” For me it is important that there is a means by which attainment and improvement can be measured. Marks and grades are a way of doing this but I do agree we need to de-emphasise their importance or, at least, alter the relationship we have with them. My own way of dealing with the emotional fallout and demotivation that can result from a student receiving poor grades/marks has always been to ensure they see them as a snapshot in time and not a permanent edifice to their inability to grasp a subject. Once they see this to be true and are able to see their abilities as capable of being improved upon by a combination of application of self and a variety of learning ‘techniques’, either formally mooted or, better yet, naturally developed by the student, perhaps with  bit of judicious ‘steering’ from the teacher, who has a suitable requisite variety of learning techniques.

The role of assessment in this process of empowerment and taking personal responsibility by the students has to change. Currently assessment is done TO the students and makes a declaration of competence based upon highly rigid criteria. Perhaps it needs to become more self-directed and peer challenged. In my experience this causes a highly visible improvement in both qualitative and quantitative work and results. The confidence of students improves as an atmosphere of positive critiquing develops.