Learning to Learn

by May 6, 2016

This post addresses the How of student driven learning, showing two approaches. The examples are provided by two practitioners, Eliad co-founder Aaron Eden, and contributor and master educator Noan Fesnoux. These examples can work in classrooms and are excellent transition experiences heading towards more free-form student-directed learning.

One example demonstrates a content-domain container (i.e. a subject, in this case Economics) and the other a container that is subject agnostic and focuses entirely on process. It is important to note that in both cases content is learned, and is learned deeply.

Container 1: Economics

The setup of this “class” is as follows: The students signed up for an Economics class, and arrived to discover that they would be teaching themselves Economics, with scaffolding and coaching by the “instructor.” To begin, it was offered that in order to learn economics, we should probably have an idea of the foundational concepts in economics. A discussion then ensued on how we might go about discovering what the important concepts in economics are.

The Danger of the Syllabus

It is one of the travesties of education, in our view, that students are constantly told what is important in a discipline. The reason being that knowing how to tell what is important to know about a subject is one of the most important skills we can possess. The paradigm in school of teachers always telling students what is important to know is robbing students of the chance to practice this critical skill.

It is important to note that this learning experience design is specifically intended to do several things, two of which are to:

  • Begin to “train” students to take ownership of their own learning (Entrepreneurial Learners)
  • Build capacity in understanding HOW to learn (Advanced Learners)

Another important component of this design is that it involves modeling advanced learning. Since the “coach” is learning along side the “students,” they get to see what advanced learning looks like. This taps into the innate human learning skill of emulation.

Once we created a list of options to go about finding the foundational tenets of economics, we created a shared output location to collect them. Each person picked two or three of the ones they came across to elaborate upon, and we engaged in group discussion to make sure we understood the concepts as we created our content syllabus.

Next, we did a similar exercise to gather up some essential questions about economics. Examples of questions that showed up on this list were:

  • What are the economics of surfing?
  • How are government systems tied to systems of economics?
  • What were the economics of the black death in the middle ages?
  • Is it possible to grow the world economy forever?

The list went on.

The format offered to the students for moving forward was as follows: How about each week we each choose one of the questions on the essential questions list (and we can always add more), research them, blog about them, and tie each two two to three of the foundational concepts in economics. If we discover more concepts we need to add to that list as part of our exploration, we’ll add them. This way we create our syllabus as we go.

Notice how enlistment is offered at every stage of the process. Enlistment is a requirement of student-driven learning. If students did not agree on that approach, we would need to go through a process of identifying how we could engage with the content we needed to cover. Part of this conversation would involve coming up with a list of features required in a successful approach, such as that it has to be manageable to the teacher, allows for opportunities to check for understanding, receive feedback, iterate on ideas, etc.

With enlistment (which is rare to not get), we moved forward. Each week each person picked their own essential question. The first part of the week was researching and writing, and the second was discussion and elaborating.

The QuestionThere are many exercises you can throw into the mix in each of these activities to build capacity. They can be around how research is done, how discussion flows (for example, you can ask if everyone would be willing to play a game where the sharer starts only with the first sentence of their offering, and then everything else has to be drawn out by the listeners with questions, etc.), on iterating towards more skillful writing, etc. There are endless “plugins” to build various skills.

Note that this approach differs from the approach offered by Noan Fesnoux below in one or two key ways, but that they are strikingly similar in every other way. In the Economics case, the students are focused on one broad topic, but then each investigate their own mini-topic inside that subject focus. In the “Systems Thinking” case offered below, learners decide together on one question to tackle together at each meeting, rapid fire style, and then they research and discuss that one topic. Topics can range into any subject area and are as diverse as can be imagined.

Container 2: Systems Thinking (with Noan Fesnoux)

In teaching several High School classes, I started to notice an interesting trend among a few students. As the class flowed into a more discussion based format, their interests were piqued and great questions started to form. Unfortunately, these classes had a container, namely the content of the class. Against my instincts I found myself redirecting the conversation to align with the preordained material.

This experience led me to question how important content was, and what could be done to ensure that instead of cutting tangential thinking off, we could do the opposite and encourage it. Thus, a class with the name Systems Thinking was born.

Instead of producing content driven outcomes, Systems Thinking would employ a range of democratic principles and a vital skill: how to immerse yourself in the topic fully and without distraction for an allotted time.

Within the first class, I absolved myself from the formal role of teacher, and declared that while the adults in the room (we always had guests: parents, teachers, and interns) may have more experience, they are equals in terms of mandating direction in this course. I went through question generation, mechanics on how we would employ democracy in our class, and the process of self evaluation which would ultimately determine the students’ grades. Looking around, I recognized the students were processing the ride they were in for: greater agency to learn on their terms, but greater responsibility in how they learned.

The second class was where the structure would begin to prove its worth. While in principle all these ideas would lead to greater engagement and ease in authentic learning, the class itself had never been tested. I had to trust that the students would react positively to this form of learning, and that by relinquishing control I was in fact providing greater opportunity for students to learn.

Each class started with a vote, choosing among questions generated by the students themselves. The first question to be dissected and discussed, by popular vote, was “Are we alone in the universe?”. I had no idea where this would lead.

Students broke into self-chosen groups (or to work alone if that suited them). They understood that for an hour they were to attempt to keep the question relevant. Tangential thinking was encouraged, but ultimately it was agreed that students should be able to trace their line of thought back to the original question if challenged.

An hour later, the class let out a collective sigh as our Systems Thinking session came to close. However, the conversations were far from complete. Following a personal reflection on their engagement, we had a group discussion on any aspect the students wished to raise. Some focussed on their discussion, and the connections they built as a group. Others focussed on the process, discussing where challenges were found in maintaining focus, and how we may overcome these.

The subsequent classes flowed ever more smoothly, and as an educator I was able to free myself from managing students and move into a role of sharing in the experience, influencing direction of conversation, and encouraging new strategies on how to view complex systems.

How successful was this class? Well, the model certainly provided agency and, through this, enlistment of the students. A strangely awkward situation best summarizes the power of such a model: On multiple occasions, as I call “class adjourned”, a number of students have been compelled to clap, only to stop and realize they are applauding a class they take in school.

Photo by samhearn / CC BY