Sunday, October 9, 2011

Customized Learning, Project-Based Learning, Differentiation..Oh, My!

Perusing ed articles and theories and the coverage of this weekend's Save Our Schools Rally (featuring Matt Damon telling everyone that we need to get rid of testing) this morning and thinking about the upcoming year at HoneyFern. I am planning, loosely, what we will all be doing, just to have a framework in my mind, but I do really believe that I should not be the one to flesh it out. Because of accreditation, though, I do need to have some sort of structure, but to me it is important to stay focused on the mission of the school (which is to help develop intellectually curious, motivated and self-directed learners).  I saw a slide-show on customized learning this morning, and that seems more along the lines of what we are doing here at HoneyFern, but I thought it was really interesting that it cast differentiation in such an unfavorable light.

The real truth is that most educators haven't the faintest idea what differentiation actually is or what it looks like; the other side of that real truth is that effective differentiation is not easy and requires tons of planning, much more than is traditionally available to teachers, especially when the majority of that planning time is then snatched back by parent meetings and mindless administrative drivel.

The other real truth of this comparison is that customized learning is extraordinarily difficult on a large scale. HoneyFern can do it because we are so small, and that's just how we roll, but customizing an educational trajectory for a class of 25, or a student load of 100+, would require superhuman effort and no outside activities (like a family or a pet). It also would not work particularly well on a regular basis in our test-driven school culture. Students would learn, just maybe not what is on the test (which is a bit ridiculous...backwards...), schools would not meet AYP and then be labelled as failing, students would leave, mass chaos would ensure, dogs and cats living together...

Then you have project-based learning (PBL), which is gaining traction as an occasional diversion from test prep. This is the dog-and-pony show that administrators trot out during open houses and sneak-a-peek sessions ("See how interdisciplinary we are!").  PBL has also made leaps and bounds forward as assessment of the product and process gets a little more streamlined and sophisticated, always a good thing, and one project a year is better than none.

So what can you do in today's schools? Not much. There is a lot of buzz about computers individualizing learning with artificially intelligent programs that accelerate or remediate as necessary, but those programs seem to pop up most with skill-based subjects (math, English) and not process-based actions (critical thinking and problem solving). No computer will be a perfect tool of customization without a teacher who A) knows how to use it, and B) has the time to really plan how to implement it. Most people seem to think that good teaching happens accidentally, and good teachers make it look so easy, but even with all of the options and tools out there, making it work takes time, effort and smarts.

We will stick with customized learning here at HoneyFern. It is more work for everyone, but the reward is so, so worth it!

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