Sunday, May 4, 2014

Incredible or Idiotic? Turns Out It's Somewhere In-between.

You may recall dear reader, (or more optimistically, dear readers) back in September, I was embarking on a classroom experiment called the 20% project. Here’s the whole sordid ordeal: “Incredible or Idiotic? You Be the Judge.”

In a nutshell, I was following the progressive corporate model Google and 3M use in allowing employees to spend 20% of their time experimenting with ideas that interest them, resulting in some of their most innovative products. My classroom version had students spending 20% of their time (1 day per week) doing the same: exploring an interest or curiosity. At the end of my initial blogpost, I concluded:
Time will tell...we’ll see if 20% time turns out to be “wasted time” or “an incredible experience.”
 Well, the results are in...and reviews are mixed. Things didn’t go as swimmingly as I’d hoped or they had hoped. In general, and students didn’t achieve as much as they had planned. But beneath it all, some learning (both theirs and mine) did happen.

Their final presentations showed a variety of results: the budding linguists, attempting to create a new language, were not yet finished; the pair who intended to create a documentary on lucid dreaming never really left the research stage; the 365 Club had loads of ideas, but never got the membership it had hoping for. Yet, the equestrian website was live, the cancer patient bracelets were made and distributed, the Sports Drink was developed. A mixed bag of success, kind of like real life.

What was also evident to me that although a central part of the project from the start was embracing the unknown and learning from failure, these accelerated students felt inadequate with anything less than certain success.
Three themes emerged in their reflections:
  1. It’s their fault (public education, that is)
  2. It’s our fault (human nature)
  3. It wasn’t all bad (we did learn something)

1. It’s their fault.

With what seemed to be wisdom beyond their years, a number of students pointed directly at the institution of public education to explain their shortcomings on the 20% project:
“All we have been taught in school is how to fill out worksheets and do specific assignments. We never get independent thinking time which is crucial in the word. In real life, our bosses aren't going to be sitting behind us and being back seat drivers in the workplace.”
And another: “In school, the answers are all in our books, and the questions are all written out.  With this project though, we had none of that.  We had to create our own questions to find answers to and make up our own goals and deadlines.  This style of learning was very hard for me, as well as many other people, because were just not used to it.”
Another student came up with a top 5 list:
“There [are]  5 things public school teach.
  1. Truth comes from authority
  2. Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat
  3. Accurate memory and repetition are rewarded
  4. Conform: intellectually and socially
  5. Non-conformity is punishable.”
Interestingly, students drew the same conclusion as Sir Ken Robinson in the TED Talk which inspired the 20% project: our educational system simply does not give students enough opportunities for problem solving, creativity and discovery. Therefore, such opportunities are foreign, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable for them.

2. It’s our fault:

Others pointed inward, blaming themselves, and perhaps even human nature.
“The biggest problem I encountered in this project was procrastination.   Although this is a big problem, it is hard to fix because it is just part of human nature.”
Another, said it’s not procrastination, but rather the general harried pace of school to be blamed: “the biggest reason why I didn't achieve as much was because I really didn't have an extra 20% of my time. During the school year, everything is fast paced, set in stone routines. Wake up, get ready, school, home, family, homework, chores, homework, dinner, shower, more homework, and then off to bed; it is life of a 21st century teenager.”
Others said that when it’s “work," it’s joyless. That perhaps anything that’s assigned becomes drudgery: “At first glance, 20% seems like a creative, fun idea, but as time dragged on, being forced to use fun for school sucked the joy right out of what was once fun.”

3. It wasn’t all bad.

Once blame was passed around, students admitted to learning among the “failing”:
“I learned a lot about different syntax. Before I wasn't aware that there was so much diversity in languages.”
“I learned a lot about myself, such as that I get off track fairly easily and I am a huge procrastinator. It helped me kick the problems I had with my behavior a little, which will hopefully help me in the long run for other projects.”
“This shows me that I am self driven and that I don't need to be nagged so that I can complete something by a deadline.”
“I learned from this project that I am a more hands-on type of person, and I don't prefer the textbook and desk style.”
              “I learned that to be more realistic in setting goals, managing time and being more strategic in planning.”
“It's disappointing to think I failed to do what I had imagined, but as a young teenager I can learn from those mistakes. You can use this knowledge throughout your life to take one step at a time, and soon you will be able to look back and see how far you have come. Hopefully, the distance will make you proud.”
So what’s my overall take on all this?

Was it “their fault” (public education?), “our fault” (human nature), or  was it “not all bad” (did they learn?)

Yes, yes, and yes.

One of my more persistent students commented at the end of her reflection: "Perhaps in my future blog posts when the weather starts to warm up. I may be able to report a bit more on this project. Even though the classroom aspect of this is over, I don't plan on giving up.

Me neither.

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