Thursday, December 17, 2020

Free Range Learning: More or Less Design?

“Fly, be free!”


On December 2, Tim O’Leary and I kicked off Creative Conversations, a monthly, hour-long exploration of the laws of learning described in Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to update our educational OS. Thanks in part to the Bay & Paul Foundations and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, these monthly Creative Conversations provide educators a lightly-facilitated space to share and gather their collective wisdom. After a brief primer, participants joined breakout groups to share related resources and pressing questions, before regrouping for a whip around of insights & wonders.

Design Dilemma

As we wrapped up our hour together, we admired the dilemma, and perhaps at times the absurdity, of trying to personalize learning within the institutional setting of school. Is systematized personalization possible? Someone playfully shared a chicken-raising analogy. How might we create schools committed to a greater degree of free range learning? 

Our seven years of teaching and iterating WTS have persuaded us (sometimes after periods of our own resistance!) that designing for wild learning--learning that tacks with the biological winds that impel our learners--requires an increase in design, rather than a simple removal of constraints that interfere with learning. The siren song of seeming simplicity--let’s just get out of the way and let them follow their passions--underestimates how much support, structure, and clarity students need to reclaim and develop their capacity to be self-directed learners. 

We’ve been there ourselves, more than once, providing students freedom without strategic constraints. It reminds us of the first 30 seconds of this iconic scene from Mork & Mindy. 

Organized Flexibility

There’s a paradox at work here, organized flexibility, or what we like to refer to as planned improvisation. Strategic constraints--not a lack of them--elicit the creativity and commitment of wild learning. Too much freedom, and not much happens. Too many (or the wrong kind of) constraints, and the domesticated learner remains leashed. 

In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes the meticulous approach a farmer takes to raising free range chickens. First, he prepares the ground where the chickens will range, cultivating a particular mix of grasses and cow dung that ripen on a staggered schedule. He then uses a mobile chicken coup of his own design to move the chickens to richer grounds, where they can feed on the ripening greens and maggot-filled dung. In addition to providing the free range chickens an ideal diet, the system gets rid of flies before they hatch.

Enticing learners to bring their best selves to what we ask them to do requires a similar level of careful design and orchestration. And when it works well, it feels more like improv than careful design, but don’t be fooled. Creating learning conditions that elicit the wild learner in our students requires better design, not less.

But before getting too tangled up in this design paradox, remember: unless our learners long for what we’re teaching, such considerations don’t matter much. To arouse our learners’ highest energies (thank you, Zadock Thompson), we need to entice them with a vivid, compelling, and simple vision of where we’re headed. 

Creative Conversations

And this is just where we’ll pick things up when we continue our series of Creative Conversations on January 6, when we’ll explore the second learning law--

we learn best by performing badly at something we want to get better at

--described in Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to update our educational OS

You can sign up for this free opportunity here, and if you’d like to receive more resources and information along these lines, please sign up for our WTS Newsletter, a monthly-ish window into the ins and outs of what our learners and team are doing.

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