Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are you engaged?

No, not that kind of engaged. I mean are you engaged in meaningful learning, sharing, and interacting? These are reasons to learn and use certain digital tools: they can increase our ability to do all of these. Of course, being an "engaged" student does not require anything electronic. The video I've embedded shows a prior student, Ashley, who has been out in the fields with women in India, engaged very meaningfully in their lives through a field study research project.

I am battling with how to figure out ways to get my students truly engaged -- and not just in special circumstances like studying abroad. I want them to buy in to what they are learning, take charge of their education, not be told what to do, and to take on meaningful projects that aren't dictated to them.

But there is opposition -- lots of it.

We are fighting against entrenched habits from an older paradigm of learning -- one that is based upon learning as a largely isolated affair (when it is now both possible and preferable to be learning collaboratively and interactively).

We are fighting the inertia of students not being expected to demonstrate their learning except through formal knowledge products (such as research papers) or formal evaluations (exams and grades).

We are also fighting the near universal acceptance of school being insulated. Apparently, schooling is legit only if it keeps students in controlled environments, far from active, authentic engagement beyond the classroom walls.

Such old school methods may have been great for centuries, but today they are inadequate -- precisely because the new media have proven that these are no longer the necessary conditions for education. School continues to systematically disengage students at a time when it is all the more possible to be deeply engaged in ideas, in communities, and in purposes and projects of authentic consequence.

I don't want my students to remain disengaged. I don't want their schooling to train them that they do not need to account for themselves, or interact with others, or even think about the pragmatic application of their knowledge until after graduation.

This is why I emphasize self-directed learning.

This is why I require students to document that learning in a continuous process through new media tools.

This is why I teach social discovery.

I don't want students to consume books or information just because they have been told to, or just because there will be an exam and they had better be able to identify a quoted passage. I want them to take charge of their information consumption, and that means having a purpose and a plan. And while I might set up the general parameters of that plan through stated learning outcomes, my students must learn to fashion their own curriculum. They need to be engaged, and they will not be engaged in the learning if they do not see a purpose for it that they buy into, or if they cannot make personal connections to the subject matter.

I don't want students to create essays or projects for the purposes of getting evaluated and certified. I want them to create a respectable and enduring presence for themselves within those media that will serve them personally and professionally into the future. That's why they don't turn in papers that get an audience of one and then get shelved or thrown away. That's why they are encouraged to compose creatively, putting their interests and multimedia into what they do, rather than just producing texts that perpetuate a certification system rather than engagement with the world.

I don't want students' educational experiences to be a way of disconnecting them from life and from people at a time when we are more rich with ways to connect and collaborate -- to be engaged -- than we have ever been before.

So I fight against any and all isolationist teaching approaches, or curricula, or academic methods. And I fight against the disengaged, purely academic, detached writing of traditional literary criticism. And I fight against that most dangerous model of education, the one that truly disengages students the most -- that model of education that micromanages all of the students' available time so that they simply cannot take time to direct their own learning, or to invest in social and intellectual causes of consequence outside of their classrooms.

How do I keep my students engaged, when they have been conditioned not to direct their own learning? How do I keep them regularly documenting their learning -- daily, continuously -- when they have been conditioned to believe that they only need to demonstrate their learning through formal means at midterms or finals? How do I persuade my students to connect with each other, instead of burying themselves in their own private worlds, when the education system has conditioned them only to look out for their personal accreditation? How can I get them to use the new media, that (if properly used) can engage them so regularly, interactively, and meaningfully with things that matter and organizations and people that matter?

How do I get my students beyond the functional practicality of "Just tell me what to study and how to prepare for the test" to Hey, these are ideas I need to work through and refine, books I just have to talk about and share, projects that could make a difference in the world?

My wife, who teaches special education kindergarten (which is very data-driven and feedback-rich) tells me that my students need frequent, informal feedback so they know how they are doing, so they can be encouraged, and so they can be directed forward in the most productive ways. I think she is right. But I admit it is hard to give points or grades to people who might just end up satisfied with getting points or grades. That is the saddest part. They might equate their success with their grades, or even their learning. What I want more than anything is to see my students catch fire with ideas, connect their learning and connect with others and find and select things of consequence that they work on -- because those things matter, even more than getting an A.

I hope I can get them to see that vision, to feel that sense of engagement, to know that there is something far, far more important than an 8-week course in writing or a set of requirements to fulfill, or even a diploma to earn. They could do so much -- if they were just engaged.

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