Real learning… without tests/ homework (who would have thought?)!

This past week, I had the pleasure and honor to teach at Hamden Hall’s first ever Engineering and Science Academy, a summer camp for students in grades 6 – 8 interested in Science/ Math/ Technology. Thirty students were selected to participate out of 70+ applicants. @Sarah_Ludwig and I taught game design using Scratch. The learning that took place over the course of the week was so amazing and authentic that it forced me to think “why can’t school be like this”?

What was so good about it? … and so unlike school?

First- the curriculum.

The teachers who were selected to teach in the program got to choose an area of study that they thought would interest and motivate students, and then tie it to a hands-on activity. This freedom of curriculum choice resulted in some of the best, most excited teachers and students I’ve seen in a long time. And the hands-on part made it all real and gave the learning a purpose. Students were exposed to: DNA Technology (and they made a DNA necklace),  Rocketry (and they launched them to see whose design was most aerodynamic), Chemical Reactions (and they made liquid nitrogen), Game Design (and they created their own computer games, then played each others’), Probability (and they studied the colors in an M &M package and then ate them), and much more! Giving the teachers the freedom to decide what they were going to teach made all the difference in the world! They were passionate and the students knew it!

Second- the schedule.

The students had two one- hour time blocks in the morning  (9am – 11am), then went to lunch(11am – 11:40). Then the students swam (and played) for 45 minutes- yes students in grades 6 – 8 still need time to play! At 1pm, they headed to their two afternoon classes. The day ended at 3. Being that classes are usually 40 or 45 minutes, having the extra 15 made a huge difference! It allowed us to accomplish our daily goals, including the hands on activity, without feeling rushed. (Well… technically it still wasn’t enough time but it was  a lot better than 40 minutes!)

Third- authentic learning.

Speaking from my own experience teaching the game design class, giving the students an authentic, real world, concrete goal of creating their own game was so motivating to them that they worked hard and even at home, without having to give homework. What does that say??? They WANTED to figure out how they could make their sprite hide or how their basket was going to catch-all the fruit. They were motivated to plan ahead, think critically and logically, troubleshoot problems, work together to help each other figure things out, and provide peer feedback. If that’s not authentic learning, I don’t know what is! As each student completed their game, there were shouts of “YES!”, “I did it!”, “cool!”. How often do you hear that in school?  The class itself didn’t look like a traditional classroom either. Neither Sarah nor I stood at the “front” and talked. After working with the students to show them the basic building blocks on the first and second day, the kids went to work. Sarah, Chris (our resident programmer genius who works in the tech department) and I spent the remaining days sitting next to the kids, working with them individually, asking thought-provoking questions and forcing them to think! How awesome is that? Most days, we lost track of time and we were late for our drop off. That says something too. No one was watching the clock.

At dismissal on Friday afternoon, parents and students and teachers were marveling about how much was accomplished, how much the students had learned and had grown…

and guess what?…. We did all of it without homework… and tests!

How can we make “real” school more like this?

Sick and tired of it…

Yes, I drank the Koolaid. I have been completely submerged in the twitterverse for almost 2 years now and I couldn’t imagine my professional world without it. This may sound extreme to some, but knowing that I have my own customizable professional development network available 24/ 7 just thrills me. When I’m looking to learn something, I go to twitter. When I’m looking to share something, I go to twitter. When I want to know the latest news, I go to twitter. When I want other people’s opinion, I go to twitter. When I want to be forced to think, I go to twitter.  When I need help, I go to twitter. Yes, I learn in many other ways too, but most of those ways aren’t available to me “on demand”.

So, it baffles me over the course of the past 2 years, how many people pass judgement on Twitter.

  • “Get a life.”
  • “What could you possibly say in 140 characters that’s worth while?”
  • “Twitter is for twits”
  • “Twitter is full of self-absorbed people who need to tell the world everything they are doing”
  • “Twitter is full of unsubstantiated B.S.”
  • “I’d rather spend my time publishing than tweeting” (this one makes  me laugh)

These are some of the things I’ve heard.

So– here’s what I say: Before you express such strong opinions on something, learn a little bit about it. Don’t we expect our students to do the same? Twitter isn’t for everyone, and that ‘s fine. I don’t tell you how to learn, so don’t pass judgement on the way I learn.