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Piagetian Learning

In his epic book titled Mindstorms,  Seymour Papert described Piagetian Learning as learning without being taught. This is a key element of learning communities and something that Vision 2020 by 2020 is designed to foster.

Traditional education presents a different environment. The homogeneous, tightly controlled, age-segregated programming of conventional secondary schools prevent Piagetian Learning. Silent classrooms full of students dutifully attentive to lecturing teachers are considered to be the sign of learning taking place as efficiently as possible. To think that student controlled learning environments can match such an information dispensing machine seems to defy logic, but in fact it appears that they can do just that. The reason is that traditional schools are far from being as efficient as people think.

The flow in them goes something like this. At the start of the day students mill about the halls until the last minute before going to class. They then stroll in, take a seat beside a friend if they have that choice, then start to chat while the teacher takes attendance and maybe follows-up with some students on outstanding business. Then before the lesson begins the teacher might do some public relations work thinking that if the students like him or her and feel good about themselves they will be more receptive to learning.

Next might come review to reinforce the material of previous lessons, review that many students do not need, followed by the new material carefully pruned not to be beyond the capabilities of the average student. The new material would be delivered with the teacher carefully watching the students’ eyes and directing questions at the ones who appeared to be slipping off into daydreams. Some assignment would then be given and a close look at it might reveal it to be little more than busy work for most students. The rest of the period would be spent with the teacher circulating through the classroom helping the students in need, and prodding others to stop chatting and get down to work. This might be the pattern for four days a week with the fifth being test day, and test day when it is looked at objectively is more about coercing students to learn than helping the learning process.

This is one class in the day and it gets repeated as much as seven more times a day with a hectic five-minutes or so between each period when students change subjects and teachers.

Written assignments are like tests. They are used to coerce students more than to help them learn. There are consequently so many assignments for students that just getting them done becomes the students’ goal rather than learning to do them well. Exemplifying this problem is the story of how a senior secondary student handled his 1000 word essay assignments. He would watch the word count as he typed away on his computer and when it reached 1000 he would end the sentence, and the essay.  Students like him get their 60% and pay no attention to the teachers’ comments because the comments are meaningless. A student has to be committed to doing his best if the comments are to be meaningful. It therefore happens that not only is student time wasted with assignments of this nature. A large amount of teacher time spent marking them is also unproductive.

Admittedly this description of traditional school days is stereotypical and not entirely fair. There are many variations on how students spend their school day depending on their teachers and the courses they take, but it is accurate enough to make the point that the design of traditional schools leads to a colossal waste of time and it parks students in mediocrity.

By contrast, in a more student controlled learning environment, time spent learning the required course material is handled far more efficiently. To describe how a day looks is not so easy to do because students tailor their own day. Following, however, are some things that were observed in the CHIP program upon which the Vision 2020 by 2020 pilots are modeled.

  1. Students did not wait until the last minute to go to class because they would not find themselves just hanging around until the teacher told them what to do. They knew what they wanted to do and could get started immediately. Wasting time in the halls became boring.
  1. Students developed the self-directed learning skill of determining what needed to be reviewed and reinforced and then they focused on it. They did not have to sit through a one-size-fits-all review they didn’t need.
  1. Much of the evaluation of learning was conducted individually when the students felt ready for assessment. There was no sitting quietly waiting to hand in a test while other students finished their tests. There was no testing of students who knew they would fail because they were not ready, and no retesting of students who did not need a retest.
  1. Bells did not interrupt activities and require student to change subjects just as they were getting into what they were working on. Once students were engaged in a subject they could stay with it for as long as they wanted.
  1. Students often helped each other, which meant that there was far less time wasted by students waiting for the teacher to help them. The saying, “If you want to learn something, teach it to someone else,” sheds light on how students can re-enforce their learning and develop the communications skills necessary to share their knowledge with others.
  1. The Sudbury Valley School, a school where students have control over their learning, has taken a different approach to essay writing. Instead of requiring students to write many essays, it requires them to write and rewrite a single essay until they achieve something close to perfection. Students don’t get by with mediocrity. They learn how to produce quality, and in doing so they develop the confidence that comes with producing it. To varying degrees, this approach was extended to CHIP students.
  1. There was an attitudinal difference when students were able to work at their own pace. They were less distracted and more focused on a goal. More than anything else, this lead to efficient learning.

In the CHIP program this all translated into students being able to do their course work with much time left for other things. This lead to significant Piagetian Learning promoted by the diversity resulting from students working on a wide variety of courses, and from the cross-age mix that increased the amount students could learn from each other.

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