Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Learning Outside the School

Lessig on the Significance of the Read/Write Web
Most of the stuff Will writes bends my brain and gets me thinking -- his writing since Christmas has really been on fire. In one of today's posts, he quotes a fair bit from one of Lawrence Lessig's articles where he was talking about about animé music videos (AMVs), created by slicing up chunks of animé movies and editing them to synchronize with (popular copyrighted) music. Kids do it for fun, to show off their mixing skills and promote the movies and music they love. Of course the record companies (and probably the distributors of the movies eventually) are trying to shut them down, even though they're not trying to profit from the re-mixing. Although I'm interested in the intellectual property issue in this context, one of the quotes jumped out at me for another reason:
"After a talk in which I presented some AMV work, a father said to me: 'I don't think you really realise just how important this is. My kid couldn't get into college till we sent them his AMVs. Now he's a freshman at a university he never dreamed he could attend.'"
So you've got a kid with a passion for animé and music (and editing software) who mucks away in his basement and maybe doesn't worry about his homework too much. Meanwhile, in his drive to create AMVs, he's learning hardware, software and a new mode of expression within a network of likeminded souls (sound familiar?)...in the process he'll probably even learn some hard lessons about intellectual property, big media and legal challenges. When he applies to college, his marks aren't really good enough (kept forgetting to do that 11th Grade biology homework) to get accepted, UNTIL he also submits his finished AMVs. His informal learning/play/hobby shows them that he has the commitment, perseverance and vision to create things of value...and the stodgy old university suddenly realizes this kid is the type they want!

This is certainly part of what I got out of Paul Graham's inspiring undelivered commencement speech -- he advises students to treat school like a day job and to find interesting problems or projects and really work hard on them (maybe inside, but likely outside of school). He also recommends finding difficult problems and questions to pursue, which reminds me of some of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's conditions for flow (total engagement in an activity) -- a level of challenge sufficient to stretch your skills, a sense of personal control over the situation or activity, and an activity that is intrinsically rewarding. These sound more like hobbies than school, don't they?

As K-12 schools move further toward more standardized testing (and pay for teachers based on their students' results on those tests), it makes me think that the real smart, interesting, engaged kids -- the nerds, the curious, and the creative -- only engage in school at the minimum level required (by their parents, probably), and develop their own real learning spaces outside of that formal realm. Artistic kids have often chosen this path already, ditching chemistry to draw/paint/write, but what happens when your "average" kids start finding that their real learning, meaningful projects and connections to a network of people with shared goals is happening entirely outside of school? I guess I've just described the conditions and value proposition for gang recruitment...but surely we could design ways to help kids find meaningful questions/projects/ideas to pursue without them having to drop school altogether.


michael hotrum said...

Jeremy - a thought provoking post - I haven't taught school in over twenty years but moments of those days always come percolating through- one such moment I'll describe below:

In my first years of high school teaching as a long term occasional I was often given the "worst" classes - i.e problem bahaviour or basic level understanding (note these terms and approaches are expressive of taht time). I had one particular student who took it upon himself to make my life miserable. I dreaded each day he showed up in class (which wasn't that often), because he had a stronger hold on the class than I did, and regularly disrupted the class.

Then one day I'm perusing the magazine racks, and there on a cover of a BMX mag is a picture of this student - as I read onm I discover he is a champion of the BMX circuit. Of course, I realize, his passion is not to sit in on my English class, his talents are not expressed in the restrictions of the classroom. And my judgement of him was so faulty I felt ashamed, yet invigorated. I knew how I could work with him rather than trying to get him to fit in to the "mold" of the classroom.

From then on, as I used this knowledge to inform my instruction for him, he blossomed, I blossomed and the classroom behaviour settled down.

How many more of our students have hidden passions, talents, that are just not addresed in our school system? How many teachers labour under a false idea of what they are there to do - control a student - when they should be there to release the potential.

Jeremy said...

What a fantastic story, Michael. Seriously, reading this here makes my week -- he was on the COVER of the BMX magazine?!

"How many more of our students have hidden passions, talents, that are just not addresed in our school system?"

All of them. Ok, most of them...there may be the odd dysfunctional kid who is actually just interested in watching TV all day. In general, kids are really into stuff. I'm thinking of my four-year-old daughter -- if anything, she has too many passions, interests and talents for her to pursue them all. I can only hope that school doesn't curtail those interests in favour of jumping through curriculum hoops. I suppose school will also expose her to thousands of new potential areas of interest, but then immediately after introducing her to them, they'll skip onto the next 87 topics to be covered by the end of the year. Sigh.

So does that mean I think your BMX champ should just ride his bike all day and never learn anything about literature or science, politics or math? No. But I bet he wasn't one dimensional in his interests, either -- BMX might have been his passion, but he was probably into some kind of music, likely had some interest in some area of the world that had piqued his curiosity at some point.

My dream would be for him to sit down with a coach at the beginning of the year to go over those interests and use them as the core of maybe ten learning projects for the year. Perhaps some could be collaborative projects where interests overlap with classmates. The coach could help integrate the development of the main literacy skills (reading, writing, math, technology, science) into the plan and assessment of the projects. So if one of this guy's projects is to design and build a new BMX track, there's no reason why it couldn't require some geometry or physics (jump trajectories depending on slopes and speed, friction, momentum, etc), soil science (soil types, drainage), business (covering the costs, running races, insurance, marketing) and chunks of many other subject areas...but the main benefits would probably be in the guy caring about the project and all the incidentals that would go along with it: working with others, writing proposals, drawing mockups, dealing with stakeholders, etc, etc...

Oh, you've got me dreaming! Thanks again for the comment.