reflections on 8 weeks of student-directed learning
Organic. That's what I wanted. An organic learning experience that, given enough time, would grow into a connected tree of knowledge. If I plant the seed and give students time to explore their passions and to learn what and how they want, will a great learning experience will take root and grow?
This year, I decided to fully embrace the concept of 20% time and give my 3rd grade class one day of the week to explore anything they wanted. Anything. I didn't give them a rubric to follow, an organizer to use, a planner to guide them, or set deadlines or checkpoints. They are not unfamiliar with self-directed learning. The previous year they were given Friday afternoons for Genius Hour. This time was a huge success and something each student looked forward to every week. Expanding it to a full day seemed like a natural progression.
More is better, right?
Before they begin Genius Day, we have a class meeting to discuss a topic relevant to self-directed learning. We've covered driving questions, deciding that a good driving question can't be answered by Google in less than a second. We've discovered a variety of search tools and how to use them by searching with key words instead of questions. We've learned to ask why, how, and what if, more than who, what, when and where. We've created a shared blog with a classroom in another country to share our genius with the world. We've established a "wonder wall" where throughout the week anyone can post something they're wondering about. We've learned and practiced "critical friending" our ideas and projects. We've even done a project based learning project to create a rubric so students can self-assess their projects.
What I haven't done is direct the learning.
For the last couple of Fridays, here is what has been going on in my room. Two students dismantled a solar powered calculator trying to design a method of charging cell phones while riding a bike. A student is researching making concrete houses in Africa to power ovens for baking after discovering that the Hoover Dam radiates enough heat to bake bread. A group is working on designing a remote controlled bomb squad hovercraft. My statistically least proficient students are working on researching endangered animals, and in the process, reading and comprehending resources standardized tests say they shouldn't be able to read. Last week, a group started working on a rubber airplane, wondering if that wouldn't be more safe in the event of a crash.
Here are some other things I'm noticing. A group glued 20 sheets of construction paper together to build a tree house. The project was abandoned. Another group, wondering if you could build a floating house, spent their day cutting notebook paper into pieces and arranging them into furniture, lights, etc. for the house. Some students spend the day "searching," ending up with a huge number of saved photos on their iPads and little else. I also saw the rubber airplane group construct airplanes from pencils and paper, which soon took various test flights around the room. Their group suddenly became very popular.
We're eight weeks into the school year, and eight weeks into Genius Day.
Reflecting on this experiment led me to write this post. As I contemplate scaling back Genius Day to Genius Hour, I'm struggling with so many questions. Why am I feeling like this experiment is not successful? Why have the past few weeks been more frustrating for me? Why do I feel that Genius Day has regressed into "Fun Time Arts and Crafts" Friday? Am I expecting too much? Or worse, too little? Do students have too much time for self-directed learning? Am I too concerned about what other teachers think? Are the kids really learning? Do I need to prove it? Am I managing enough? Is it time for more structure? Have I lost the joy in the process, at the expense of a product?
Has the plant grown too big and is in need of pruning? Or does it need fertilizer, water, and nurturing to continue to grow and mature?