Learning Without Schooling
Technology for Learning
by Bob Coulter
It is clear that there is a growing trend to look to "out of school time" (OST) learning opportunities to supplement or extend students' education. Done well, these experiences can offer outstanding opportunities for meaningful learning. All too often, school-based learning is built on not what is best for students to be doing, but on the required curriculum. When this happens, we sacrifice good pedagogy to fulfill an administrative goal of standardization and mistakenly honor the myth that this brings accountability. Until we have a real change in how we conceive of schooling, the truly fertile learning experiences will be found increasingly after school and in the summer.
To engage young people in these richer learning experiences, we have to be careful to avoid simply moving the norms of the school day into after-school and summer programs. In the NSF-funded Local Investigations of Natural Science (LIONS) program I'm directing in the St. Louis region, students often report to our evaluators how much more they appreciate the improved pace of the after-school and summer sessions. Without the frenetic jumping from topic to topic and focusing on quantifiable objectives, students can learn better and develop their interests more completely than they can in their regular school environment.
Teaching well in this environment requires a significant shift in professional identities. We are seeing clear evidence that the more successful after-school groups are ones in which the leaders enact a pedagogy that is markedly different from their peers'. Instead of being dependent upon externally-provided, sequenced curriculum, successful leaders have found ways to build from students' interests and provide them with the project authorship and leadership experiences that education should be focusing on. These leaders are also teaching from their passions, showing a real interest in the topics and issues the after-school groups are investigating.
Not surprisingly, it is this latter group of teachers who have the richest professional exchanges. The level of dialogue when they get together is light years away from the more pedestrian "what do I do next" discussions that more traditionally-focused teaching engenders. These teachers tend to make the best use of educational technology to achieve their teaching goals.
It is no secret that most students find technology to be engaging. Terms like "digital natives" are used to describe their comfort and facility with learning and using comparatively sophisticated technology tools. Still, harnessing this fluency toward productive learning requires mentorship. Learning when, where, and how to use these tools to support meaningful learning requires that we have a strongly developed pedagogy.
3D video games
To illustrate some of the possibilities that emerge with pedagogically rich, technologically-enhanced OST learning, I'll share two projects I'm working on with colleagues at the Scheller Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Aside from preparing MIT students to work in schools, the lab at MIT is developing some particularly innovative uses of educational technology.
In the last issue, I briefly mentioned Star Logo: The Next Generation, the latest iteration of the venerable Logo computer language that has been on education stage for more than twenty years. I'm currently leading twenty students on Saturday mornings in a game design workshop where they are creating 3D video games. Lest one dismiss this as more mindless screen time, it's important to keep in mind the levels of complexity the kids are working with as they design the overall game play, program the characters' actions and interactions, and engage in a continual process of refinement and improvement. Throughout, there is a substantial amount of peer interaction as the young designers exchange ideas with each other and integrate what others have found to be successful into their own designs.
Traditional skills through innovative practice
In addition to these meta-level benefits in strategic planning, design, and collaboration that students gain from their projects, they are also developing traditional academic skills. Programming character movement on the screen requires an understanding of distance, direction, angle measure, and elevation. The authentic application of these concepts promotes deep understanding, well past what a textbook or worksheet exercise can provide. Equally important, this ability to apply their growing mathematical understanding shows students how math can be a powerful tool for meeting their needs. "When are we ever going to use this?" Right now—to solve a problem that you yourself have identified. Just-in-time, meaningful learning is always more powerful than warehousing "you'll need this someday" strategies.
A second project we have been using in after-school and summer programs involves "augmented reality" games on handheld computers. These games create a hybrid experience where players are out in the community exploring local landmarks and natural features, with their experience enhanced by the information presented on screen. What is presented depends on the player's location (as tracked by the GPS chip in the handheld) and the choices made so far. Different choices enable access to different information or resources. For example, in a simulated water quality investigation that a group is doing, they have the task of determining the cause of simulated pollution in a local creek. After "meeting" a local expert in the park who gives the players an orientation, they need to make a plan for which areas of the creek to investigate. As they navigate to these areas (guided by the GPS), they "meet" experts in those areas who can help students understand whether what is happening at that particular area might be the culprit and explain the observed pollution.
The gaming aspect comes in as students are limited by the programming of the game to a certain number of sites to explore and experts to interview. Thus, the need to employ their understanding of water quality to successfully navigate the game. A "win" is being able to explain the suspected causes of the water pollution, supported by the data and perspectives they have gathered in their play.
Students have been playing and creating these games in our after-school and summer programs with great interest and success. Like the work with the Star Logo game designs, students need to engage in both higher-level strategic thinking and very detailed planning and troubleshooting as they create and refine their game designs. In these games, skills in spatial thinking (for positioning) and writing (for character creation and information dissemination) are critical. Depending on the focus of the game, different academic content will also come into play. For the creek game, water quality issues, basic chemistry, and ecology are framed within an engaging context that promotes understanding and interest through immediate application.
Each of these examples illustrates the possibilities for out-of-school experiences to reclaim much of what is best about learning and engage students in projects that are meaningful and interesting. This helps meet the ultimate goal of good education as it gives our kids increasing power to understand and make a difference in the world.
©2009 Synergy Learning, Inc. All rights reserved
- Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.