Student Centered Learning

Last week I was working with a team from UNIS Hanoi and from Concordia International School on an event for next October. We are calling it Synapse: Innovation & Action. Our concept is that instead of being focused on technology, like our Vietnam Tech Conference, it will take a broader focus on innovation in general. We identified two strands that were designed to pull in groups of people that don’t often attend these sorts of conferences: Early Childhood and EAL. Then we identified three strands that concern the future of education: Blended Learning, Creative Learning Spaces, and Service Learning.

In a sense, all three of these strands are wrapped together in the concept of Project Based Learning. The Buck Institute for Education identifies some of its traits:

  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question

They also draw a distinction between it and its cousin, Problem Based Learning. Problem Based Learning developed in the 1960s in medical schools as a way of focusing on case studies and problems similar to those that the students would face in the future. As the Buck Institute points out, it’s both related to Project based learning and a bit different.

Buck Institute for Education Gold Standard PBL Teaching Practices

At our conference planning meeting, I asked whether we should broaden the focus from Blended Learning to Project Based Learning in general. The response, from tech director David Elliott of Concordia, was that Blended Learning was making possible the vision of project based learning from 100 years ago. For years now, progressive educators beginning with John Dewey have advocated for a radical recentering of education that focuses on student learning.

As Grant Lichtman pointed out in his 2013 TedX talk “What 60 Schools Can Tell Us About Teaching 21st Century Skills”, this sort of change is uncomfortable. “We are large, bureaucratic, bulky organizations… Schools are risk-averse,” he says correctly. And yet, he also points out that there are sparks of innovation across the US and around the world, innovative ideas that Dewey would love.

Lichtman asks the question, why do we find it difficult to move away from an industrial, contained, controlled model of education to a more creative, dynamic ecosystem? He could just as easily be asking why teachers struggle to orient their curriculum towards student generated projects, why teachers aren’t adopting open blended learning tools, why we still have classrooms instead of open learning spaces, and why learning is disconnected from real problems in the community.

Lichtman also identifies three obstacles to this sort of innovation: anchors, dams, and silos. The anchors are the attachment to time, space and subject that both consciously and unconsciously affect the way with think. These are the frameworks that are oriented around making things easy to manage, not necessary easy for learning. The dams are the standardized tests and college admissions offices that rank, order and sort the futures of our students when they graduate. Finally, we have the silos that limit our spaces for communication and collaboration in discovering creative solutions to all of these problems.

Of all of these obstacles, the one that seems most intractable is the reluctance of teachers and administrators to relinquish control over the educational structure. Right now UNIS is working on articulating and uploading our curriculum into the mapping tool Atlas Rubicon. It seems as though the push is to go from a somewhat uncoordinated, teacher centric curriculum to a more coordinated, teacher centric curriculum. Where is the space for kids to learn about what they are interested, at time and in spaces that are of interest to them?

Alan November raises this question in his keynote address at “21st Century Learning — a Deep Dive into the Future of Education”. He talks about a math teacher that he encountered who uses Khan academy with his daughter, but is unwilling to use it in his classroom because it would mean that some kids are progressing faster than others. It’s true: if your curriculum depends on everyone learning the same thing at the same time then blended learning, creative learning spaces, and service learning are not for you. As Mr. November points out, “The biggest problem of all is letting go of control… This is really about shifting control.”

I’ve already written about blended learning, about creative learning spaces, and about refocusing education on authentic problems. Service learning is (or should be) a part of all of this. Even in schools like UNIS, which has a ‘strong’ service learning program, service learning usually comes in the form of an additional class and perhaps some field trips that seek to promote a social goal. The difficult part is to truly integrate service with learning.

However, part of the reason this is difficult is because curricula, whether classroom or service, are often directed from the top down instead of the bottom up. Last year I was placed into a Yearbook service learning group, and while I tried to help where I could I never felt like I had much ownership over the group.

This year, I requested and was allowed to create my own Service Learning group: Tech for All. The goal of the group was to promote robotics and technology across Hanoi. The high school team I was working with signed up for differing reasons, but together we were able to articulate a fairly strong vision and mission. Most importantly, we had a real, tangible goal: to host a Robotics Kickoff event that would bring together both international and local Vietnamese schools to learn about robotics and engage in friendly competition. We held the event last Saturday, on May 16th, and had 60 students and teachers from 10 different schools attend.

To me, this is the heart of authentic, project and problem based learning. The students at UNIS worked to identify our goals, build our web site, design our flier, network with other schools, learn about Lego Mindstorm robotics kits, build a giant maze and sumo arena, co-present material in both English and Vietnamese, and pull off a great event. While I provided guidance and support throughout the project, the students felt like it was their event, not just mine. This is what Dewey was talking about 100 years ago, it’s what progressive schools around the world are working to implement, and it’s what breakthroughs in blended learning and other technologies are making more doable than ever before.