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Here is the prompt for the end-of-week-4 reflection exercise in the “What Future for Education?” MOOC on Coursera:
Create an entry in your reflective blog or journal.
How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult?
In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?
Your entry should be a minimum of 200 words.
Starting with the last bullet point, I would say that it is highly likely for me to meet the minimum of 200 words, since the first eleven posts in this blog averaged slightly over 1000 words each. That’s because I’m a bit verbose, I know, but also because I have a lot to say. So now, in all seriousness, I’ll turn to the first two bullet points above.
My experience as a learner is not some uniform, consistent or monolithic phenomenon. There is not a single broad “experience,” but a panoply of experiences of schooling and learning, ranging from formal to informal, from closed-ended to radically open-ended, from disagreeable and counterproductive to wildly positive, fertile and creative, from rigidly imposed to fully autonomous and self-directed. If I had to generalize, what I would say is that in schools, particularly before the age of 13 or 14, I generally refused to conform to rigid learning schemes. But by high school, I had realized that it was going to be necessary to compromise with the inflexible, obligatory educational systems and to “play by the rules” so that I would be able to succeed academically, no matter how uninterested I was in the system itself or in much of the content that it foisted on me. In the end, after some starts and stops, I finished my undergraduate education and received an undergraduate degree in English, which interested me greatly, and Communications, a field that interested me only slightly (although it was “practical” and allowed me to get a job immediately after finishing my university studies). To make a long story short, I completed my undergraduate diploma approximately two years later than my peers, in part because I suspended my postsecondary education a few times to work full-time while reflecting on what I truly wanted to do. Ultimately, somewhat late, I completed my studies, received my diploma, got a job and worked for about one year in two different jobs that I did not particularly like and in which I could hardly imagine a productive and happy future life. After considerable thought, I abandoned my very short career in radio and changed directions completely, applying to graduate school in a completely different field, French, which I had only begun to study as a beginner about three years earlier. But… it was what I wanted to study. It was meaningful to me. Fast forward by a few decades to find me working as a tenured Assistant Professor in that field. Today, I pursue interdisciplinary research and teach both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary classes.
My general experience of school was rife with difficulty and my academic performance was problematic at best. It’s not that I had cognitive problems. It’s that I did not want to do what teachers required of me in many cases. Sometimes I did the obligatory work and earned good grades. Sometimes I simply refused to do what was asked of me. I neglected to do homework, performed poorly on some tests, etc. The underlying reason for my erratic performance was lack of interest and lack of motivation. In those years when I had a teacher or two who appealed to me or excited my curiosity or inspired me, I enjoyed learning. When I found most of my teachers “boring” (as I thought of it then) or when they condescended or lacked enthusiasm for their teaching, I disengaged and received poor grades as a result.
That formal experience diverged significant from another category of life experiences. In part, because both of my parents were medical doctors and valued learning and because they provide a large variety of learning tools and experiences at home, I had an exciting, vibrant and highly productive life as a self-directed learner. My family possessed had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and other reference works, and I used them regularly to learn on my own. I read a great deal and used a dictionary constantly. I wrote poetry and fiction and used the encyclopedia to add detail and texture to my stories. I took part in a rocketry club and learned telemetry. I consumed documentaries (being secretly in love with Jane Goodall) and watched Sesame Street and Electric Company. I developed the habit of reading newsmagazines, particularly Time and U.S. New & World Report, around the age of 10 or 11 and I sometimes asked my parents to explain current events, like the Vietnam war, Nixonian politics or the Apollo missions. I had a lot of tools for autonomous learning, like anatomical models of the human body, self-quizzing tools in a range of disciplines, and math puzzles. I had chemistry sets, electronics kits, science magazines. In short, as a kid, I had a lot of rich and satisfying learning experiences outside of school.
The contrast between unsatisfying school life and heady, joyful self-directed study on my own or with my siblings and friends at home formed my tastes and preferences in learning. To this day, I like to learn on my own. My graduate work included a lot of autonomous, self-directed learning, as does my work as a tenure-track faculty member. Indeed, even now, I love to do research and “library detective work.” I take MOOCs and read a great deal. I prefer autonomous learning to highly structured learning activities, especially those where I am asked to do activities in lockstep with others. I do enjoy collaboration, although a teacher- or leader-directed activity that leaves me little discretion or freedom to manage my own learning turns me off. I am certain that it is because of this background and this experience that I am a “distributed individual” learner who enjoys takings MOOCs like “Leaders of Learning” or “What Future for Education?” Connected learning, which can combine autonomous and self-directed learning with digitally-mediated collaboration, generally engages me and captures my interest, particularly if the learning project piques my curiosity or resonates in meaningful ways with questions that I believe are good to ask. Even in my own teaching, I tend to make my lessons learner-centered and collaborative. I allow learners to share in the selection of readings or development of activities. I have learners develop discussion questions or co-manage online discussion forums in collaboration with me. I try to make my learners active. I try to foster autonomy and self-responsibility. I show my enthusiasm and passion. I try to model the best of what I’ve picked up from self-directed learning, but also the best parts of my school experience with engaging, inspiring teachers.
How could schooling be improved for learners like me? Allow and empower greater autonomy; support self-directed learning. Get rid of drab, rigid, square classrooms. Offer bright, airy, cheerful spaces with flexible and mobile furniture. Enable collaboration. Make learners responsible for their learning, but don’t impose impose structures or timetables for every step. Set high expectations, but then empower learners to learn at their own pace to meet those expectations.
In short, based on my experience, I would like to introduce an informal character into formal education. I developed into a serious intellectual and a committed lifelong learner largely in opposition to formal educational systems and processes, rather than in harmony with them or supported by them. Given that background, it is understandable, I think, that I would like for education to allow greater learner autonomy. The educational system(s) ought to teach teachers to motivate, guide, mentor and accompany learners, instead of directing or commanding them. Institutions and schools ought to figure ways to provide digital tools and resources, then let the learners pursue their interests in a way that meets learning goals, as part of the curriculum if not as its whole substance. Generally speaking, those kinds of innovations would be the major elements in my plan to improve education. I think that it’s important to focus on learner autonomy and self-responsibility, with high expectations, but flexible pathways for meeting learning goals.
That’s it in a nutshell.