You know, about 3 years ago, I had a vision for a school program that would expose students to all sorts of different topics and engaging learning opportunities. Held in the month of September, it would (hopefully) get them excited to start the new school year. It was like a month long “conference”, where a whole bunch of learning opportunities (I called each of them “Learning Cells”) were presented to students all throughout the day: workshops, group projects, field trips, guest speakers, silent reading areas, round table discussions, even meditation rooms.
While some cells were come-and-go-as-you-please (such as the silent reading area), most of them had schedules, in order to bring students of common interests together at the same time and location. e.g. “Indian cooking class today, from 1:00-2:30 PM!” Many of the cells would have longer term schedules e.g. “The physics of bridges: each Monday this fall, from 10:00-11:00 AM”
Students were free to roam around, and partake in whichever learning cells they choose. They could visit several cells, and leave if they didn’t find it was relevant to them. And they could take breaks from time to time, whenever they wanted, as long as they did not do it excessively. In other words, no pre-scheduled 15-min recess blocks.
But there were certain restrictions. I feel like people work best with autonomy and structure. For instance, for the structure part, at the end of the day, students would write a journal (or a blog or forum post) in order to reflect on what they learned that day. And each student was placed in a “homeroom” group (I never chose a name for this though), where they would share their experiences, and get to know one of their teachers the best… their Learning Mentor, who could give them more personalized attention. Students stay with their Mentor for several years at a time in order for their relationship to grow. Pretty much like they do in the Danish “Folkeskole” system.
And as is the case in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters foundation, the matching between student and mentor would be done with great care and planning. And if the relationship was no longer working, the student would be paired with a new mentor. Students would also be required to complete a Personal Project of sorts, like they do in the International Baccalaureate program. A long-term project of their choosing where they really develop their skills in order to accomplish something worthwhile to them (and then share their results with their peers).
Throughout the month, teachers and peers would give the students feedback on their projects (and the work they created in the learning cells), but the emphasis would remain on discovery, rather than evaluating the students. That evaluation part could come later, once the regular term starts.
At the time, I thought my idea was “radical” as well, and I thought I was the only one thinking this way. But little did I know, people are actually making this a reality! As the Innovative Educator blog reports, there are already several schools in existence that are creating these more natural learning environment for students. And finally, there’s a movement called unschooling/deschooling where students do this kind of learning year-round in even more flexible and personalized environments. I’m definitely going to have to research them further.