Learning through participation as the rule rather than the exception

Tags: English, opinions, essays, university, learning
Created on Wed, 18 Feb 2015

School has never been only about learning stuff.

For few years I believed it’s the things happening in the breaks that matter. Relationships, doing stupid things and talking about crazy ideas. But that’s not completely true. I believed that because just my last memories from school are that things in the break matter. But it didn’t use to be the case. I loved learning things when I was younger.

Oh my, I would read like crazy - Encyclopedias, science books, I would draw the planets of the cosmos and remember the map of Europe. For 16 years of education, school and later University were trying really, really hard to kill this in me. My love and passions, my curiosities. I (almost completely) stopped going to school in the last couple of years. I was having my own projects and I didn’t care about the things in the breaks so nothing could keep me there. There were a few subjects like Physics that were interesting to me but by the last couple of years I started slowly falling out of love for the subject. Computers were my new passion and school just could not keep any challenge in that subject for me.

In my visits to the schools this year I saw this projection of myself clearer than ever. My first class was 4th year students. When I looked at them, that’s exactly how I remember feeling - bored our of my mind, not caring, trying to squeeze in a conversation about anything but the class. But then I met with 1st years... My host teacher, Mrs McVey, can confirm how staggered I was the first time I saw the difference! They were so lively, passionate and open to meeting me! And most of them, actually interested in the subject as well. I loved meeting them - they would ask me all sorts of questions about my country, about my studies, about my work at Google. The fourth years? They would barely notice I was there or anything was there at all for that matter!

So what changes in these few years time? Everything! Your priorities shift. While you were once genuinely interested to know the world, eager to meet new people to play with, you now start copying adults. Everybody starts expecting you to be an adult - your parents, your teachers, your more mature friends. And while you still play secretly with robots at the lone hours at home, the picture that the society tries to project on you changes. They want you to throw away your toys and start going to parties. Hey, you want to do that too - you gotta fit in! It is where the new playground has moved. It’s the same people most of the time, yet with louder music, questionable substances and new dictionary.

And your genuine interests slowly fade substituted by interests of society. Who is your girlfriend? Do you smoke? Do you drink? Which University are you going to choose? What are you going to work? A lot of character and/or antisocial behaviour is needed to not care and continue doing what you were doing. Most of the people don’t make it, you change.

You are not a child anymore. You have responsibilities. You start having life of your own, your hormones are going crazy, you start searching for intimacy but without knowing what to expect or do since nobody teaches you this. You start crafting your own world. Your music. Your movies. Your sports. Your troup. You are not anymore attached to your parents as you used to, you start questioning their authority, their tastes, their boring, grey life. You are so full of things to do, yet they expect you to wash the dishes. Or be home by 8. 8? That’s when all the fun starts! Now, you know you are not a child anymore, you reshaped, you want to be seen like this!

And that’s okay. It’s how the world works.

But in the same time, school stays the same. School doesn’t pay attention to your changing environment. School wants you to learn stuff as you have learnt it before. No, it wants you to do it better. It acknowledges that you are an adult by giving you more things to do. Harder things to do. But a human being can only care about a constant amount of things.

So what happens? You stop caring about most of the subjects. You give in to the gossips and coolness talks. It is cool not to care about the subjects. The plan of action becomes a challenge - “No matter what the teacher does, I will be against it! I will not let her interest me in anything or I will appear weak in front of my buddies!”

But the truth is every single one of us has a child in himself. It is buried under deep levels of walls of prejudices, barriers and adult things. For some big adults it is being crushed completely almost beyond repair. But for the most teenagers it is purely a matter of tact to bring it out and let the curiosity and interest spur.

How do we do that? Well, the teenager’s (and adults) most important signal for right behaviour is the approval of his higher ranked friends. If they approve, the action is right and he will be still in the group.

Therefore, this becomes a power game. Could the teacher win it? The teacher has the most absolute power - she could say when to speak and when not, the grades (and therefore the peace at home) depends on her. But as an unrespected monarch, if the teacher doesn’t seem interested in what her “citizens” are interested in, she will lose the battle to “impose just laws”, i.e. teach them something.

The monarch needs to come down to her citizens, to understand them in order to rule them. And she has to do that without sacrificing authority.

This is all well in theory but what does it mean in practice?

Stop pretending to be omniscience and omnipotent and discover the knowledge with them. Be a good leader - just lead, don’t pretend to be the ultimate power. Engage them in workshops where you are the facilitator rather than God. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know something, let them help you understand.

Show them why this thing is interesting in the proverbial real world. How does it apply in their terms, not in yours. What does it mean to know Excel? Finding job? They don’t care about that yet. In few years, maybe, but not now. Maybe they care about calculating their GPA. Show them that with Excel, not how to manage a library! And if someone knows something more which is interesting - ask them to go in front and show the rest. Don’t tell them to keep quiet all the time, let them talk what is interesting to them.

It is a monstrosity what I am seeing in the Scottish schools - start the day with one and a half hour of studying, no break. And then 10 minutes of break before another 1.5 hours!?!!? When is the social interaction happening? When are they talking about the things they care about?

The times I’ve seen pupils engaged is when they are allowed to speak between each other and it is something that they care about.

Workshops should be the standard, not the exception. Workshop which emphasises on participation, allows speaking and if you show them why this is interesting to them - they would discuss how to do it, play with it and it will bring the child out of them.

Participation, discovery, curiosity - things that mostly miss in schools today.