Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let the Unlearning Begin!

Social Studies - As part of our Student Driven Learning class model, I created a blog space for my kiddos to learn from each other. I'll post an entry with a topic, graphic and some starter questions. After watching video, reading books and online resources, playing games and looking at digital resources, they can begin conversing on the blog about the topic (for example The Salt Trade of Africa during the Middle Ages). This is fascinating stuff and so alien to the kids that they do enjoy learning about it. The frustrating thing for me is that it takes so much time to "unlearn" their old expectations.

"Today I want you to look at the trade routes and think about why they were there. Why was salt so important that it was traded in equal weights to gold? Why did these specific cities emerge? Who controlled the roads and villages?" I prompted the kids with these questions, both verbally and on the blog. I want them to think of the big picture.

"So what's the assignment?" a student asked.

"To learn about the salt trade of Africa," I replied.

"But what's the assignment?" the student asked again.

"Well, I don't really have a written assignment for you today. I just want you to find out more about the salt trade," I said.

"I don't understand," said the student.  Other students chimed in that they don't know what to do if there is not an assignment out there for them to aim for. Apparently there must be a tangible result of their learning or else there is no point. Well, we argued for a bit about the point of learning. Do we learn just to show our learning on a little assignment due at the end of the hour? Why are we studying this if not to fill out a paper or make a presentation of what we've learned? Hmmmm, when kids go home and learn about other things that are not school-related, do they fill out papers to show what they've learned? Are there test questions over the games they learn to play with their families? Sports they learn to play? Pets they learn to care for?

The kids are so trained to expect a written form of expression of their learning that they cannot fathom learning something for the sake of learning it, at least in school. Why is that? I told the class, "For those of you who feel incomplete without an assignment or who feel in your heart and soul that you NEED an assignment in order to learn this cool stuff, you can turn in a one-page summary of what you've learned this hour. For those of you who are comfortable with just learning this because it is interesting, you do not have to do the summary paper." My fear is that if I have some questions to check their understanding, they will only answer those questions as narrowly as possible, fleetingly knowing a few aspects of the salt trade instead of immersing themselves in the story of the topic.

How will I know if they have learned anything? Well, while roaming the room, I observed many kids watching videos from our African Kingdom playlist, reading the digital resources, and even flipping through the textbook. Apparently they were learning about the salt trade without the reward/threat of an assignment. They still have not begun to converse on the blog, but I am hoping that with some encouragement, they will.

Now, there will be a culminating project in a couple of weeks that will include the parts of the African Kingdoms that we've covered. At that point, kids will have a chance to show what they've learned. In the meantime, they will learn for the sake of learning. Let the "unlearning" begin.

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