Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Self-Directed Learning Goes Beyond the Self

Rabbi Ross has continued the blogversation we and Rabbi Tzvi Pittinksy have been having about self-directed learning, voicing concerns about the possible loss of well-roundedness in the quest to allow students to choose their own pathways through school. Before everyone starts to worry that we're in for a future where we'll be tossing away accepted notions about what it means to be a Renaissance person, let us assure you that self-directed learning doesn't mean a student learns one subject all day, choosing, as Rabbi Ross suggested, only math classes, let's say, and forgetting that there's anything to be learned other than algebraic formulas and complex algorithms.

Math through Basketball?

Self-directed learning can mean many things. We first got interested in it because of Sugata Mitra's discovery of how students in India could teach themselves with very limited resources (thank you, RealSchool member Akiva for showing us that video!). Our interest in self-directed learning deepened because of Will Richardson's challenge to math teachers, asking them if his son, who is a basketball enthusiast, could learn all the math he needed to learn by studying his favorite sport. The answer, 60 blog post responses later, seemed to be "yes." That possibility has to be intriguing to any teacher; how much more engaged students might be if they could be analyzing their favorite sport as they learn!

Opening, not Closing, Horizons

The Sorcerer's and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss, a book Ken Gordon of PEJE suggested recently that educators from Jewish day schools read, highlights the work of the MIT Media Lab. One professor, Leah Buechley of the High-Low Tech group, works to ignite passion for engineering in those who wouldn't ordinarily be interested in it, particularly girls. Here is what Buechley's group does:

High-Low Tech, a research group at the MIT Media Lab, integrates high and low technological materials, processes, and cultures. Our primary aim is to engage diverse audiences in designing and building their own technologies by situating computation in new cultural and material contexts, and by developing tools that democratize engineering. We believe that the future of technology will be largely determined by end-users who will design, build, and hack their own devices, and our goal is to inspire, shape, support, and study these communities. To this end, we explore the intersection of computation, physical materials, manufacturing processes, traditional crafts, and design. (

Buechley is on a "quest to combat what she calls the 'cultural lopsidedness of the hard sciences,' in particular the gender gap, by getting more females . . . interested and active in the world of engineering and inventing" (Moss 227). An invention as appealing to girls as this interactive wall paper means Buechley is well on her way to achieving her goal:

This interactive wallpaper, called the Living Wall,
shows people, not only young girls, that creating
through engineering is fun and can lead to something
accessible and that adds value and fun to everyday life.
Imagine if our walls could help us with daily chores!

Buechley understands what girls are interested in; they want to play with pretty things and decorate their play houses (not to be too stereotypical, but hey, we posted girls playing basketball too, so we're safe with this gender-biased assumption). The point is that Buechley is trying to reach girls on their level, that is, directing learning so the student is at the center of it, with her interests being ignited and appealed to first and then building a curriculum from that.

So rather than having self-directed learning be narrow and confining, our two examples -- of sports-based math and design-based engineering -- show that a student interest can lead to something even more broadening and enriching.

More than One Value

It's also important to remember that one value doesn't define RealSchool and other programs like it. To remind you, here is RealSchool's Mission Statement, which begins with a verse from Ethics from Our Fathers, one said by the famous sage Hillel and which we'd like to think endorses the concept of self-directed learning:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

But the verse continues, showing us that we must also use our talents for a common, greater good:

"And if I am only for myself, what am I?" (1:13)


Thus, RealSchool also prizes our culture of collaboration. RealSchool students work together in a friendly and respectful way with others, so that while pursuing their own passions, they learn to value others for the talents and interests they have. And more often than not, because the walls of the disciplines are dissolved during RealSchool meetings, students end up peeking into the doings of other teams and learning they have an interest in all sorts of things they never thought they may have cared about.


Bracelets we sold at our fashion show last year told wearers
"You are Beautiful. You are Enough."

Another value, crucial to RealSchool and which can also be derived from Hillel's second statement, is that what we produce has to contribute positively to the world around us. Therefore, all RealSchool students see that there is relevance to their work, that their interests can be converted into something that is meaningful and beneficial to society and the world. 

Learning by Doing

Though Hillel is silent, at least in this verse, on the concept of learning by doing, we cannot remain so, as it is one of the program's most important values. We want kids up and doing, not sitting behind desks. We want the learning process to be messy, we want kids unafraid of making mistakes, and we want to hear noise and commotion as we create and innovate. 

The Kindergartners Get a Say

We have more to share, but we'll end for today with this great video, called "Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning." We love to post this video: it's of kindergartners engaged in project-based learning. While some aspects of the projects are clearly teacher-guided, one adorable one was totally student-centered: a funeral for the class pet bug. Enjoy seeing how these small students are taking ownership of their learning: