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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 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 high. 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.
UK Headteacher Hannah Wilson, @TheHopefulHT, posted this quote in a tweet recently. Unafraid of sailing my ship? I used to be terrified: so scared I’d make the wrong move that I didn’t make any moves whatsoever. At least, looking back it seems that way. In truth, I probably made the moves that I was capable of at the time.
I’m capable of so much more today.
Lately, I’ve been getting kind of weepy at times. OK, I’ll confess to some actual sobs once or twice, even. Why? Because I can perceive how freaking big and beautiful this world is, and I want more. I sense my mortality in one hand and in the other, more connections to people and places than I ever have had before, and it sometimes overwhelms me.
In the quote’s framework, I’m a sea-proven captain at the wheel of my schooner in the midst of a raging gale, howling with laughter as I face the storm. My giddiness battles with fears of losing it all, not fear in experiencing it.
My ship is a quirky one. Many are confused by it or laugh a bit over its route. From many viewpoints, it’s not the most successful of vessels. But it’s mine more and more every day.
I can finally say I’m really learning to sail it.
I’m a late-bloomer. I know people who had a vision in their teens and twenties and haven’t wavered much through the years I’ve known them. I’ve always been jealous of that consistency and frustrated with my own inability to emulate that behavior. I’ve bounced from one thing to the next, immersing myself in the moment but never being able to say, “This is it!”.
While I’m having a blast on my ship, it has a few holes in the hull. Income and medical needs are two that would sink or dry-dock me without the support of others. I’m not alone in that; we all rely on other captains and crafts in this fleet of humanity. It’s critical to do so.
Other captains teach us what they have learned of the seas. They offer suggestions based on their own travels. They sympathize with us and laugh with us. Sometimes we separate as friends and other times as foes. Regardless, it pays to remember they are sailing as we are: imperfectly informed, supplied and equipped. We can acknowledge that even when we disagree with their course.
I’m hoping to meet a slew of new captains and their ships in the coming years. Perhaps ones who will help grow my writing career. Others who may help me flesh out ideas on Asian Studies project-based learning at the high school level, connecting youth with experts in music and other arts to create something new and culturally bridge-building. Possibly some will push my ship on a completely different and currently unknown journey. I’m open to it. Not knowing what will happen is part of the fun in traveling.
We shouldn’t be afraid. We each have a different way. How wonderful if we can embrace what is ours and move toward the sun. It rises and sets, whatever we choose to do.