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robertogreco : ilab   1

The "Unstructured Classroom" and other misconceptions about Constructivist Learning | FabLearn Fellows
"Ask any average kid what his or her favorite part of the school day is and you will probably get the answer lunch or recess. Kids love unstructured time because they have the privacy to fail while taking risks or learning how to be a social primate. At recess, kids have nearly 100% choice over what to do with their bodies, with the safe assumption that in case an injury does occur, an adult on duty will be on the scene in due time. Provide kids with a rich, not necessarily antiseptic space to explore and they teach us a lot about ingenuity, inclusivity and learning through play. Whether passionate about the physics of soccer or the game theory involved in the antics the day of a middle school dance, learning is experiential and self-directed at recess. Regardless of what passion takes over their choice time, we as adults trust them to make safe choices for the most part and we respect their individuality. So why does that trust shift when those same children come into our classrooms?


In the three years that I have been teaching science through the lens of making or inventing and problem solving, I have often heard the iLab, referred to as “unstructured,” by some well meaning adults. This harkens back to the discord between what we know progressive education can be versus what we envision when we think of a “progressive classroom.” When I worked at Calhoun in New York City, we were considered a progressive school and we often had the debate about what we mean by the term “unstructured.” The debate would invariably follow a conversation with a nervous parent that would go something like this, “Its good for some kids maybe, but my son doesn’t do well in an “unstructured” classroom.”

Student-Centered means having access to the tools and knowledge needed to set and reach learning goals. In this simple example, having tools out for a help-your-self community workshop feeling does the trick.

If that child struggles in his or her academic classes they may have an Individualized Learning Plan, which often involves the suggestion to write every instruction down for the child and to be explicit regarding the modes for success in your class. In other words, the best thing for the student to be and feel successful is to tell the child what and how to learn, as much as possible. While at first glance, this kind of teacher-led structure, which we want to spare high achieving kids from normally, seems like good teaching. We even have the perfect safe sounding term for it, its called scaffolding. My concern is that some scaffolding is tantamount to helmet laws which may be teaching us to be less safe in the end. Having had the gift of watching students learning in a student-centered classroom, however this translates to me, as nothing more than a lack of trust for children’s innate desire to learn what matters to them and an equal instinct to find importance through autonomy and risk taking and helping others. Thankfully, I am not alone in my uncensored trust of children as progressive playgrounds in Europe and Berkeley Ca, are beginning to prove.

By its own existence, a pre-set school curriculum assumes that children can not be held responsible for their own learning. On the one hand we as adults who work with kids, know kids do not always know what they do not know. Learning how to learn means seeing the stepping stones between just an idea and an idea that works. The skills of research and the use of tools for learning in general, are sometimes better taught step by step in the same fashion for most. On the less optimistic hand, cookie cutter curriculum also allows for some ridiculous falsehoods that many adults live in fear of. For instance, most adults worry children would not learn to read, or write, or to do math, left to their own devices and need the structure of school to make those skills materialize. Thank god dire circumstances still allow for disruptive questions to be asked, such as those asked by Dr. Sugata Mitra, allowing for a more diverse picture of who we are as a species, one that engages in learning for the sake of learning.

Here is my response to the claim that a maker classroom is unstructured. There are skills to be gained in any maker style curriculum on a spectrum from totally student driven to totally teacher directed. In my classroom I lean more towards student-directed with a game-like structure. For any given unit, either patterns, structures or systems, I give a simple prompt which allows for the most diverse range of solutions for students to discover. In game like fashion, there are rules about deadlines, teams and rules about when and how long play takes place (thats built into the school day schedule). There are “levels” of achievement and complexity of learning embedded into the system to be mindful of safety, and to allow for a mentoring system so knowledge is democratic and passion-based. Allowing students to chose the complexity with which they want to solve a problem is a side of autonomy that we cross our fingers over, but in the end, even when kids pick hard problems, they are experiencing something of value in that path full of potentially frustrating dead-ends. A list of such values we have all seen in our own ways teaching this kind of learning style. This past weekend at FabLearn, Sylvia Martinez, of Invent To Learn and Constructing Modern Knowledge, put it succinctly when she compared the kind of work kids can do in a fabrication lab environment to little league baseball. The authenticity of the work that kids do in an environment of constructing, allows kids see themselves as real inventors and engineers in the fashion that a little league player can imagine being a professional baseball player. It feels real and its age appropriate."
christaflores  2014  education  teaching  learning  schools  constructivism  unstructured  student-centered  fablearn  pauloblikstein  making  progressive  sugatamitra  responsibility  unschooling  deschooling  howwelearn  ilab  pedagogy  formativeassessment  paulahooper 
january 2016 by robertogreco

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