I have always found children learn better, faster, deeper, and stronger when they do stuff, real stuff. Curiosity, interest, desire, and control are the bedrock upon which true learning grows. Children who build, create, construct, and design in order to learn are using all their modalities, all their “intelligences”, all their senses, and they do it in a way that works best for them individually. I think the reason children learn more during the first five years of their lives (before they enter school) than from then on is because they are doing stuff that grows out of their curiosity, interests, desires, and needs and they are making their own choices about how to do it.
I recently came across “Prototype Design Camp” , a workshop for high school students that provides them with mentors and experts from many disciplines and the opportunity to create something over a three-day period. The question they were exploring was “What is the future of education?” Check it out . This is what school should look like, I think. Embedded in this type of educational experience are all the information, processes, and learning our children need. I can’t think of a single child I’ve ever worked with who couldn’t eventually be sucked into the learning vortex generated in this type of environment. With elementary school children, the mentors and experts don’t have to be famous and far reaching—classroom volunteers, older students, working together with children to support them in their inquiries and creations, rather than “teach them” meaningless facts, can be hugely productive.
What if, instead of always grouping children according to ability levels, we sometimes grouped them into interest groups. If you are studying an ocean theme, each child could choose an area of expertise, upon which they will become the experts, and teach the rest of the class. Working together within their interest groups, they not only learn all there is to “know” on the subject, but they investigate and explore areas that intrigue them. They go much deeper into the subject than they would if you were dispensing knowledge, and then they devise the best way to share their experiences with their peers. I have seen third, fourth, and fifth graders write, produce, make costumes and sets, and act in a movie on native Californians, design an elementary school that would withstand earthquakes, develop a board game about California gray whales, and create a museum display of endangered turtles, complete with ceramic, scaled sized shells of different species.
These students met once a week with a classroom volunteer. During that meeting they discussed what they had learned during the week, made plans for the following week, and began to develop, plan, and create their teaching materials. The volunteer was their mentor whose sole job was to support them in developing their own course of study. Minutes of their meetings were kept in a group notebook, so I could easily keep up with what they were doing, what they were going to work on during the week, and where they were going with their lessons. They worked on the project during their free time. These students (even those with behavioral and learning disabilities) were suddenly much more motivated to complete their daily work—they needed time to work on their projects. I wonder what I might have witnessed had I taken this concept as far as the Prototype Design Camp. This is the type of learning I’m trying to develop in the thematic units I am writing, although frankly, I don’t think there is any curricular material that can beat just setting kids loose and letting them learn. (I’m NOT talking about a free for all, but a classroom designed to be a learner’s workshop, which is what you’ll find at the Prototype Design Camp!)
This article was originally published on another website on February 28, 2011.