Education from the Bottom Up?

Last night I attended a talk by Shirley Bryce Heath about her new book, Words at Work and Play, moderated by Anne Harper Charity Hudley and Frederick Erickson. Dr Bryce Heath has been following a group of 300 families for 30 years, and in her talk she addressed many of the changes she’d seen in the kids in the time she’d been observing them. She made one particularly interesting point. She mentioned that the world of assessment, and, in fact much of the adult world hasn’t kept up with the kids’ evolution. The assessments that we subject kids to are traditional, reflecting traditional values and sources. She went as far as to say that we don’t know how to see, appreciate or notice these changes, and she pointed out that much of new styles of learning came outside of the school environment.

This part of her talk reminded me of an excellent blog post I read yesterday about unschooling. Unschooling is the process of learning outside of a structured environment. It goes further than homeschooling, which can involve structured curricula. It is curricularly agnostic and focused on the learning styles, interests, and natural motivation of the students. I mentioned the blog post to Terrence Wiley, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, and he emphasized the underlying idealism of unschooling. It rests on the basic belief that everyone is naturally academically motivated and interested and will naturally embrace learning, in their own way, given the freedom to do it. Unschooling is, as some would say my “spirit animal.” I don’t have the time or the resources to do it with my own kids, and I’m not sure I would even if I were fully able to do it. I have no idea how it could be instituted in any kind of egalitarian or larger scale way. But I still love the idea, in all it’s unpracticality. (Dr Wiley gave me a few reading assignments, explaining that ‘everything old in education is new again’)

Then today I read a blog about the potential of using Wikipedia as a textbook. This idea is very striking, not just because Wikipedia was mostly accurate, freely available, covered the vast majority of the material in this professor’s traditional textbooks, and has an app that will help anyone interested create a custom textbook, but because it actually addresses what kids do anyway! Just this past weekend, my daughter was writing a book report, and I kept complaining that she chose to use Wikipedia to look up the spelling of a character’s name rather than walk upstairs and grab the book. Kids use Wikipedia often and for all kinds of things, and it is often more common for parents and educators to forbid or dismiss this practice than to jump right in with them. I suggest that the blogger not only use Wikipedia, but use the text as a way to show what is or is not accurate, how to tell, and where to find other credible, collaborative sources when it doubt. What an amazing opportunity!

So here’s the question that all of this has been leading to: Given that the world around is is rapidly changing and that our kids are more adept at staying abreast of these changes than they are, could it be time to turn the old expert-novice/ teacher-student paradigm on its head, at least in part? Maybe we need to find ways to let some knowledge come from the bottom up. Maybe we need to let them be the experts. Maybe we need to, at least in part, rethink our role in the educating process?

Frederick Erickson made an excellent point about teaching “You have to learn your students in order to teach them.” He talked about spending the first few days in a class gathering the expertise of the students, and using that knowledge when creating assignments or assigning groups. (I believe Dr Hudley mentioned that she did this, too. Or maybe he supplied the quote, and she supplied the example?)

All of this makes me wonder what the potential is for respecting the knowledge and expertise of the students, and working from there. What does bottom-up or student-led education look like? How can it be integrated into the learning process in order to make it more responsive, adaptive and modern?

Of course, this is as much a dream for a wider society as unschooling is for my own family. To a large extent, practicality shoots it all in the foot with the starting gun. But a girl can dream, no?

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3 thoughts on “Education from the Bottom Up?

  1. I’ve never heard of unschooling before, but it strikes me that there are ways of incorporating some of the principles of unschooling in a formal education setting. Project-based learning, discovery learning, and other methods based on social constructivism and the experiential learning cycle put students in the role of creators of knowledge without the need for a radical redefinition of education as an institution. Of course, people have the same misgivings about these methods that Dr. Wiley expressed about unschooling, sometimes linking them to concerns about implicit classism.

    • I’ve seen project based learning in action (physics), and while it is very clearly suffering from classism- dependent on the ability to pose and form questions, etc- it is definitely a better way of learning science than lecture… I wonder about the potential of other strategies, like interactive textbooks and gamification in science learning.

      But unschooling is pretty far afield of project based learning, because you would never have a group guided to a single activity with a uniform set of expectations like that. For example, if one kid is in love with architecture or engineering, ze can learn problem solving and reading from that perspective, probably to a different depth than someone who loves science fiction or philosophy above all else. Unschooling is about cultivating natural interests and expertise (which is probably potentially unbeatable career training), ideally, although in practice the facilitator surely brings some baggage to the table.

      I wonder if our ethnography class isn’t closer to principals of unschooling than project based learning, with its “structured ambiguity” and individualized learning. Imagine, for example, an ethnography of engineers that delved into the mechanics and math. There is freedom to be more or less quantitative or qualitative, bring your personal expertise to bear, and develop the skills you choose, to some degree.

      (I hope this comment makes sense. The app I’m working with isn’t very good for long comments)

  2. Thanks for another informative blog. Where else could I get that type of information written in such a perfect way? I’ve a project that I am just now working on, and I have been on the look out for such info.

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