Lesson 2 from a year of self-directed learning: traditional paradigms are difficult to escape

In September 2018, we established a program that enabled a group of MYP students to direct their own learning for a year. In these blog posts I share three key lessons from that year.

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

For a long time, one of my favourite things to do was to ask people what their dream school would look like. I was struck by how similar their responses were. Schools should be tailored to individuals, focused on holistic development, connected with the “real world”, they said. When I asked them – especially those working in education – why schools are not already like this, the response was that it’s just not possible with the constraints that schools face; curriculum requirements, restricted lesson time, an aversion to change by key stakeholders. 

A central idea of Pathfinder was to remove as many of these constraints as possible and start with a blank slate. In many ways it worked. We grouped students from different year groups to take advantage of peer learning, collapsed timetables to allow students more flexibility with how to use their time, and stripped the MYP back to its fundamental principles to allow students to design the curriculum. 

However, we couldn’t achieve a completely blank slate and this affected the purity of what we tried to do. For example, we designed an assessment system that would focus on individual progress rather than a numerical achievement level: students would receive a “+” if they’d improved from their last assessment, an “=” if they’d maintained their level and a “-” if they’d slipped back. 

In many ways it worked well. One of my favourite moments of the year was seeing two students high five after both getting a “+” for maths, when I knew they’d got quite different achievement levels. This conversation would usually have left the student with the lower number feeling despondent about their genuine achievement. 

However, this system couldn’t take root because we lacked a means to clearly communicate progress to parents. Existing reporting systems are, understandably, designed around traditional paradigms; students grouped by age, receiving regular numerical grades, everyone doing the same thing at the same time. This meant that we needed to use a myriad of documents to communicate and track progress, which inevitably didn’t work. As such, we’ve had to (temporarily) compromise our ideal assessment system in order to ensure clear communication with students and parents. 

Similarly, we’ve bumped up against the traditional paradigm that exists in the rest of the school. The need to plug into a timetable and registering system that operates on the basis of distinct student groups attending regular classes has caused real headaches. And, most of all, students have felt the discomfort of challenging the norm: it can be disconcerting to know that all of their peers are studying something different, and difficult to connect with friends who experience a very different day to themselves (even when Pathfinder students feel they’ve had a much better day!).

We’ve managed this with a lot of adaptation, good will and frank discussion. But the tentacles of tradition and stickiness of institutions have been difficult to throw off entirely. 

For me there are two lessons here. First, it may well be easier to establish a new paradigm through a completely new school or through whole school transformation. And second, we need a revolution in all areas of education – digital platforms, teacher training, public perception of education – if we are to establish and maintain a different way of learning.

An interesting review of the “school within a school” initiative. Lee and Ready describe the difficulties of attempting to run to paradigms alongside each other in a single school.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Lesson 3: Give students a stage

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