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Learning at its Best

Self-Organized Learning in the Standardized Classroom: Possible?!

Work within the system for slow systemic change, or from without for idealistic radical change? This is one of the most exhausting choices facing modern alternative educators. I want to take a crack at how we might approach educational transformation from within a typical public charter school with all its focus on core curriculum and the drive towards college prep.

First, a quick “why.” College should be within the grasp of any graduating student, though I think it’s pretty clear that success and happiness in one’s life does not depend on it. Regardless, education remains one of the best socioeconomic equalizers at our disposal. Most urban dwellers – especially those of the not-rich variety – tend to have limited access to quality education. For example, here in New Orleans, your child is almost certainly either in a public charter school or a private parochial school (or not in school at all).

So, how do do we satisfy DoE-defined Grade-Level Expectations, appease the managerial preconceptions of a typical administration, and still create space for students to determine the direction of their own education?

First tool: Project Based Learning. This is a popular concept by now and most principles will gladly recognize it. With PBL, students are often working together (social learning), have some freedom of mobility, and discover the purpose of learning beyond a written test. They are using real skills to research, design, build, and communicate.

Second tool: Understanding by Design. Backwards design unit plans are very common in public schools now and allow us to focus on the big picture. Essential questions and big ideas create a context of inquiry, while simultaneously “covering” GLEs to the satisfaction of the higher-ups. Assessment is multifaceted and somewhat individualized.

Third tool: Democratic education. This phrase means different things to different people, but I mean it in the context of an Alfie Kohn quote: “Give them as much freedom as you can stomach.” For example, what if the classroom had a library of project units designed by the teacher, but were chosen by students? Sure, How to Build a Rocket might be a linear interdisciplinary learning plan, but individuals or small groups are allowed to choose the next project as dictated by their own interest.

Of course, there will be some restrictions and expectations, but is that a bad thing? Hands-on learning, diverse assessment, freedom within limits: it may look messy in practice, but none of this should be opposed by an administration or (hopefully) by the students. For the millions of underprivileged urban students, an approach like this would probably be a welcome change.


7 thoughts on “Self-Organized Learning in the Standardized Classroom: Possible?!

  1. Reblogged this on I Think I'm Gonna Blog.

    Posted by Jason Lacoste | February 28, 2012, 1:52 pm
  2. I dig the message; a few questions:

    How much due regard should we give college?

    How much due regard should we give the standards?

    What is the roll of tacit, or emergent, or experiential knowledge and learning in UBD assessment? What are the non-negotiables of assessment and/or reporting in your mind?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2012, 7:25 pm
    • Awesome questions, Chad. Here are my thoughts.

      Regarding college, I don’t think the question needs to be answered whether kids *should* go, but rather whether they are *prepared* to go. It reminds me of a very brief conversation I once had with Howard Fuller where he said:

      “Most of us who running that [whether kids are being turned into cogs], we got college degrees and we got a job. So my thing is I want these kids to get a college degree and a job so they can pontificate about what it ought to be like.”

      In this country (and globally), we’re facing a new corporate-education complex to compliment the military-industrial, and it’s questionable as to how beneficial a high-priced college degree actually is to most people. I think the decision should be left to families whether to go, but it would be hard to suggest that college prep is not in the purview of public schools.

      As to standards, the big problem I see is not their existence, but the high-stakes pedestal they’ve been placed on. Referencing back to Adam’s post citing Mitra’s “Three Skills”, I think it’s beneficial to have a standard guideline for (e.g.) reading and math skills. I believe the freedom should come in students choosing a path, not in reinventing the “How to” part of learning.

      In that case, standards would be encased per unit, not in a pressurized 12-year linear learning plan. I’d ideally like to bring in a bit of Montessori to the traditional classroom, such that students could choose what to work on next and find innovative ways to assess and track.

      Inquiry-based learning is starting to get some respect in public schools, and that paradigm fits well with UbD and PBL. The idea is to make explicit the big ideas that students can use as context, offer project guidelines (or in some cases, let them design a project of interest), make agreements on appropriate assessment and timeline, and let’em loose.

      In a public school, assessment must do a couple things. First, it must line up with DoE-defined GLEs, however creatively. Second, it must offer parents and admin a sense of forward momentum. Third, I believe tracking should be of most benefit to the students themselves. A hefty portfolio full of written pieces, art compositions, designs, constructions, and even traditional quizzes/tests reminds kids of what they’ve accomplished. They do tend to forget sometimes (a la: “Hi son, what’d’ya do today?”… “I dunno.”)

      Further, a project portfolio approach is great preparation for college, something all admins and parents should be able to get behind.

      Obviously, this is all theoretical for me at this point, as a 30+ student inner-city classroom tends to be a little more complicated than pretty ideas. However, I think bringing semi-revolutionary practices into hyper-standardized schools is the logical conclusion of having experimental schools in the first place. Worth a try. 🙂

      Posted by Jason Lacoste | March 2, 2012, 1:38 pm
  3. Jason, I am really impressed by the way you are trying to bring learner-centered principles into the current totally dysfunctional regime, especially in New Orleans. I’m noticing that.

    And my heart takes a downturn at the mention of “learning units.”

    I rarely learn in units.

    In support, and solidarity,


    Posted by Kirsten | March 2, 2012, 2:29 pm
    • Hi Kirsten, good to hear from you! I think I understand what you’re saying about natural learning vs. formalized learning, but I think it may be ok to have a bit of both. Especially in the context of trying to make in-the-system changes.

      For example, when I want to know more about China, I don’t learn about that country as a unit. I just wander the information landscape til I feel satisfied. But if I want to learn how to play guitar, that could easily be organized as a unit (e.g. Guitar For Beginners). There could still be freedom within that unit in terms of style and genre, but most guitarists follow a predictable learning curve in the initital stages, and that can be formalized.

      This is true for math and reading at the early stages. Not all children become interested in particular mathematical concepts at the same time, but learning to add is a clear objective that can be formalized as a unit.

      This is all in the spirit of compromise between freedom-based and outcome-based education, and I’m glad to have the Coopsters insights! It’ll be interesting to return to the classroom with all this in mind.

      Posted by Jason Lacoste | March 3, 2012, 12:12 pm
  4. Just wanted to take my virtual hat off to you seeing that you are so passionate about doing radical things in a context that I imagine is antithetical to radicalism. I guess that in practice it is important to keep focused on the immediate task in hand instead of standing back too much and thinking about the bigger picture.

    Didn’t quite grasp the point in your second paragraph. What was the “why”? Why what? And “education is one of the great equalisers”. I have more qualifications than Warren Buffet. The inequality remains, though, doesn’t it? I must be missing the point.

    Anyway, I am happy to have stumbled upon the Coop Catalyst.

    Posted by Torn Halves | August 8, 2012, 6:12 pm


  1. Pingback: Links I Shared With Staff This Week 3-5-12 « principalberry - March 5, 2012

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