We have started something that we can not control. Students are gradually assuming more responsibility and ownership for what they learn and how they learn it. This is a good thing, but like splitting an atom inside of a cardboard box, there is no hope of containing its power and potential. Yet, by and large, we stubbornly cling to a traditional school system, attempting to control student learning in the confines of a specific space, time and method.
Here are three reasons (there are many others) that, as educators, we must open the “cardboard box,” extending student learning beyond our classrooms, schools and communities.
(1) We are not the experts.
Regardless of how good we might be at our jobs, I dare say that when it comes to almost any teachable concept, we can find someone in the world who knows more about the topic than ourselves. Why would we deny our students access to this knowledge? Technology allows us to bring experts into the classroom. It allows students to hear from, and interact with, those who have first-hand knowledge and experience with critical concepts in many different fields of study. It is one thing to read and watch a video about the Lost Boy’s of Sudan, it is another to listen to one speak and ask him questions about his experience. Good teachers, and effective schools, of the 21st century will provide their students with these opportunities.
(2) Relevance is much easier to illustrate beyond classroom walls.
There is no better way to engage a student in learning and provide relevance than to allow them to assume ownership of a task and grant them an audience. Whether writing a blog post related to a personal passion and eliciting comments from a world-wide audience, or using writing skills to orchestrate a local community service campaign, students who “own” their work and understand their ability to make a difference will be engaged in the learning process. This is relevance. Too often we attach the term relevance to something that students “could” be doing with a particular piece of knowledge (i.e. you could use percentages when you go to the grocery store). This is neither relevant, or meaningful. Our students don’t need to know how they “could” apply knowledge….they need to do it.
(3) Knowledge leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empathy. Empathy leads to action.
We want our students to apply what they have learned to improve the human condition. It is too easy to become detached from the human suffering that goes on in our world. Our students need to have a better understanding of different cultures, and the struggles that others endure. This understanding helps them develop a sense of empathy and will hopefully lead them to take action. While studying about the struggles of others serves a purpose, our students need to get their hands dirty. They need to interact with people in other countries, participate in community service activities in their own community and develop direct connections to a world-wide audience.
A balance is shifting in the world of education and the definition of what it means to be a student, to be a teacher and to be educated is changing. This shift not only envelopes the content and skills that are being taught, but the methods used by educators to teach. We have always given a cursory nod to the concept of the “teacher as facilitator,” but now we must truly embrace this role, moving beyond lip service. Educators, and schools, no longer possess a learning monopoly–what we refuse to provide, our desired audience will find elsewhere. We have a vital role to play, but we are not gatekeepers. As educators, it is time for us–at least metaphorically–to tear down the walls of our schools and allow our students to engage in a learning process that is truly meaningful, relevant and boundless.
cc flickr photo: by by brianfuller6385