Read many current educational articles or twitter feeds, and it becomes pretty clear that progressive educationalists are gaining voice. Project based, constructivist, experiential, problem solving curriculum is lauded and promoted at every turn, and thankfully so. Learning becomes deeper and more meaningful when students participate in knowledge building. However, there are a few educationalists who are really pushing and disrupting the boundaries of progressive education. They are those who believe in student generated content.
There are 2 types of student generated content, one that involves students getting active in learning, creating texts based on teacher or assignment stimulations, and one that extends from there and lets students create knowledge autonomously. Whilst the former is certainly a positive movement in the right direction, encouraging active participatory learning that fosters increased engagement, there would be few who could claim that autonomous learners are not the ultimate goal of education, certainly not anyone who understands motivation theory anyway. Yet presently, progressive education seems to only address the first of these categories. Why? Is it that progressive educators don’t believe in autonomy? I doubt it. Why then is it so difficult to take this next step to truly engage students in learning, to let them be autonomous learners?
Is it because of an inherent belief that students don’t have the ability to organise knowledge, or that they don’t have the maturity to create and curate information, or the insight to evaluate it, or the will to do so? Is it a belief that a non-expert can’t produce and curate high quality rubric related content, and essentially teach others, especially when examinations are pending? For the majority of educators, the answer to all of these questions is sadly, yes, and therein lays the real issue in education. Forget about standardised tests, forget about lack of funds, and forget about technology, the largest obstacle to improving student engagement is a lack of autonomy.
Ask any expert on motivation theory and they will tell you that increased autonomy equals increased engagement in learning. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you are in control of what you are learning then you will have more connection to it, more interest, and hence more engagement. All of these outcomes lead to deeper learning in a chosen task, and most importantly of all, stimulate independent learning. And it’s the fastest way to achieve it. As educators we must aspire to providing such opportunities, and begin to position students in roles of responsibility. For me the real litmus tests for progressive educators is not how much technology they use or how many Twitter followers they have, but the extent to which they believe in independent learning, and then how much they practice what they preach. Only a select few incorporate technology into curriculum design in such a way that allows students to take control of the learning space, engaging social media to facilitate creation and curation of content, honoring and harnessing the power of peer evaluation, and most importantly of all, allowing students to collectively decide on accuracy of information. Many would doubt the validity of such an approach. What if the information was wrong – the whole class would fail in exams? Obviously a teacher would moderate at this stage, but what if it wasn’t just one class that was creating and curating? What if it was the whole country? Would accuracy naturally sort itself out? Would the law of averages come into play? Would we see the rise of student voice? Would we see a student type Wikipedia?
The concept of Wikipedia faced itself with similar doubt, and an aggressive societal and expert backlash, and yet we fail to have learnt from what could only be described as one of the most adopted disruptive knowledge disseminators ever. Why is it so hard to imagine that students could create a similar body of knowledge tailored to suit exam or other learning criteria? Fortunately, there are strong advocates of increased student voice, notably Steve Wheeler, Jackie Gerstein, and Stephen Heppell to name but a few. These people are pioneers in integrating technology into curriculum design. They believe in the possibilities of trusting students, the power of student voice, but also in the inevitability of change.
Technology has finally facilitated an outlet for students to regain some autonomy in the learning process, to let them lead, to let them shine. So watch out, because now they have a taste for it, there’s no turning back.