Looked at in this way, it's hard to say that there is any real learning crisis in America. People are learning and developing organically all the time.
So Why Isn't This What School Looks Like?
From a classroom perspective, this type of informal learning can appear less rigorous and less relevant to the task of preparing students for college and career. This is partly because learning that is self-guided may not fit into the curriculum maps that we have created to represent and ensure a well-designed educational experience. With self-guided learning, we worry about what is missing instead of what is being gained.
Another problem is that this type of informal learning lacks the checks needed to guide students to a more critical form of exploration and rumination. If we just let kids explore and wonder without teaching them how to avoid faulty logic, ask critical questions, weigh issues, and come to supportable conclusions, then we risk creating uninformed citizens who can easily be manipulated by forces bigger than themselves. Certainly, this is one of our most important tasks as educators. I would ask, though, if there is really any one piece of content that every child must experience in order to gain these skills. If not, I wonder why we are so rigidly committed to a standardized academic canon.
Finally, while exploration and wonder are the forces that can point us to our passions, some of our great passions in life come to us after we have struggled to learn something, and many of our passions come to us because we are exposed to them without our having chosen them. In this sense, teaching a broad range of content to all students may be wise. The problem may be in our expectation that all of this content will and should "stick" to every child in the same ways.
I Think School Could Look Like This
I share all of this because I don't want to suggest that informal learning by itself is enough to qualify as an education. Still, I do want to suggest that using a person's natural curiosity and desire to learn through exploration is currently under-represented in formal education, and I believe that we have an opportunity to develop our own and our students' creativity by encouraging exploration and wonder in our classrooms.
So how does that play out?
I'd begin by suggesting that a portion of the time we have with students ought to be earmarked for self-guided learning that is supported by teacher-coaching. Students should be given regular opportunities to explore, research and develop projects that are personally meaningful, that require ongoing effort and personal growth, and that end in real-world demonstrations of learning. The role of the teacher in these types of projects ought to be to inspire curiosity, to ask probing and relevant questions, and to offer paths to support when students get stuck. For this reason, I am a big fan of 20% time in classrooms as well as more structured Project-Based Learning models.
I'd also suggest that giving students the opportunity to share something they've learned outside of the curriculum every day would be a great way to build community, inspire curiosity and de-segment learning. Teachers should also be in the habit of sharing their informal learning and modeling ways that informal learning can enhance the work at hand.
Another great way to inspire wonder and encourage exploration, is to give students examples of great digital content that is built for exploration. A teacher could, for example, curate a collection of age-appropriate digital learning spaces (a digital learning playground) and provide "recess" times for kids to interact with these spaces. These digital playgrounds could be very general in focus, or they could be built around concepts that students are or will be learning about. This wouldn't be assigned work in which every child is expected to interact with every piece of content in a specified way. Instead, it would be an opportunity to guide their own exploration on their own terms. The teacher can then ask some important questions. What did you learn? What was missing? What would you have added to the list? Why is what you learned important? Will you remember this learning? Why or why not?
Here's an example of what one of these playgrounds might look like (this one is focused on learning about Shakespeare):
Click here to open this binder in a new window.
Here are a few of my favorite places to explore and to share with my learners:
10 Great Places to Learn and Play
10 More Great Places to Learn and Play
Possibly more importantly, we can learn to effectively and safely explore the Internet for our own purposes as well as teaching our students to do so. Actively teaching skills that enhance online research and habits that support online safety can help us to ensure that our students are successful informal learners even when they are not in our care.
Here are some resources that can guide you:
How to Use Google Search More Effectively [Infographic]
10 Tips for Smarter, More Efficient Internet Searching
Searching the World Wide Web Introduction
Google Can Do That? How to Search the Internet Effectively [SlideShare]
5 Ways to Keep Online Searching Secure for Kids
Help Your Children Search the Internet Efficiently and Safely
The Teachers' Guide to Keeping Students Safe Online
Additionally, here is are links to tool collections that can enhance this work:
Curation Tools for Teachers
Media Sharing Tools for Teachers
Research Tools for Teachers
Social Networking Tools for Teachers
Web Content Management Tools for Teachers
There is no shortage of great content on the web, representing countless opportunities to learn. Taking the time to formalize our surfing, to think of our self-guided exploration as purposeful and relevant to our growth as individuals would go a long way to bridging the divide between learning and school. Building opportunities for exploration and giving the green light to wonder as legitimate uses of our time as learners will help us be more creative in our thinking. Doing the same for our students and supporting them as they develop their own exploration skills and curiosity will help to engage those students as learners and prepare them to forge their own paths safely and confidently.
photo credit: Johan Larsson via photopin cc
photo credit: cordiaz2000 via photopin cc
photo credit: Stitch via photopin cc