Learning Without A Safety Net

As a learner I tend to have problems following curriculum (I have trouble following it as a teacher too).  For me, learning is a challenging, self-directed, non-linear activity.  It’s a delight  when you have that eureka moment and frustrating when you’re can’t grasp a concept because you don’t have enough context around it.  I don’t want it to be easy, and I don’t want it to be fail-proof.  Classes that are unfailable are pointless in my eyes; difficulties in learning are what make it empowering!  Success shouldn’t be assured, if it is, you’ve sacrificed any real sense of accomplishment.

If a teacher, closely following set curriculum, spoon feeds me a lesson, I don’t feel that I’ve learned it, so much as learned the wrong thing (being told how to do it rather than figuring out how to do it).  When students ask me to resolve a problem for them, I point them in the right direction, I don’t fix it for them.  They aren’t in class to learn how to ask someone to correct their grammar, operate Adobe Flash or build a computer, they are in class to learn how to do these things for themselves.  If they’re miles from figuring it out for themselves, I simply try and close that gap, but never take the last step, they need to do that themselves, or they won’t own their learning.  To quote the mighty Morpheus, ” I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it. ”

I set up my classrooms as research centres and each assignment as a project.  The environment should quickly and easily provide the tools needed to learn in a hands-on way.  Failures aren’t failures, the only way to fail is to do nothing (which an increasing number of students seem to be doing once they realize how hard it is to fail in the current system).  I encourage experimentation, and the opportunities found in resolving your own misunderstandings.  Most of all, I make it very clear that the only way to fail is to make no attempt.  Once students are engaged, they inevitably find success in a supportive learning environment.

I did this in English and it often caused conflict with the force-feeders who feel that you’re not teaching unless you’re talking at the class.  Those force-feeders are as often students as they are teachers; the expectation of most academic students are that the teacher will give you information, you’ll repeat it back, and see high grades.  Giving them room to fail makes them very nervous.  Seeing that the technology curriculum is actually based on this idea of broad based, project focused learning, I’m looking forward to teaching a subject built upon this open, student centred approach.  I loved teaching art for the same reason; project based, hands-on learning with lots of time for me to work one on one with students as they develop tangible skills.

In a tightly restricted, curriculum based classroom, I feel like I’m trying to dance in a straight jacket (both as a teacher, and as a student).  I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be some focus, but the moment you dictate the entire process of learning, you effectively kill any personal meaning or satisfaction in it.