This post originally appeared as a Teacher Insight at ICHK.

For those of us who received our formal education in the last millennium, we will most likely recall learning that was highly structured and prescribed. Lessons appeared orderly, with everyone moving through the same material at the same pace, regardless of interest, prior experience or ability. The focus was very much on the individual being able to mimic the knowledge, language and skills of the teacher.

As a teacher, it has been my experience that this kind of learning produces fairly predictable results: a reasonable base of knowledge, with consistency between learners, but very little in the way of creativity, passion and excitement.  Such learning, it seems, is easy to deliver and test, but carries little meaning in the real world, and bores most students most of the time.

Over the past six years we have moved our ICT program steadily further and further from the traditions described above. With each iteration of our course we have observed our learners in their work, actively sought their feedback, and reflected on our practice. The result has been a constant renewal of our offerings, with successful learning experiences kept, and the rest discarded and replaced.

At some point during this journey I came, I believe, to see the exact point at which traditional schooling typically falls down: motivation. Put simply, students who are not motivated to learn, or who are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as fear or future earnings, are generally not active, independent learners. They will do enough to push away the negative emotions associated with learning, but may never experience learning simply for the love of becoming a better person, or mastering something previously out of their reach. They develop a brittle, fixed mindset, and are prone to anxiety. They become isolated, focusing on their own development and considering schooling to be an individual pursuit, rather than a team sport.

This “revelation” should not come as a surprise: after all, how could we expect anyone to become great at, and take pleasure from, something they do not enjoy? For good reason we find it hard to imagine the uninspired concert pianist, the bored surgeon or the unwilling pilot. Unfortunately, many of us are so invested, from our own experiences of school, in the idea that school means struggling against adversity, that we may never pause to consider alternatives. Worse still, we might ascribe to struggle some mythical traits such as “building character” or “tough love”, making unhappiness a daily reality for our children.

Today at ICHK, ICT learning looks very different from the status quo described above. In Years 7-9, we now see Secondary students spending 60% of their learning time deciding what to learn, how long to learn it for and who to learn it with. After building a foundation through a series of units that seek to inspire the romantic thinker (Epic Wallpaper, Tools For Learning, Programming 101), students are set loose on a Free Learning journey that helps them to find joy in learning. Instead of grades we offer rich comments, instead of fixed outcomes we focus on learning what we need to succeed in the task at hand, and instead of teacher dependence we seek independence and problem solving.

This alternative vision of education can seem chaotic, unpredictable and messy, but through careful design it is in fact structured, rigorous, meaningful and engaging. Students find new ways to learn, and learn to collaborate around interests, not friendship groups. They go deeper, invest more of themselves and find new interests. They plan ahead, and execute their plans to get where they want to go. They are pushed to not just skim the surface, but to dig deep and succeed where they might not expect to.

This truly is learning, not schooling. This is setting students free to explore a wonderful world of knowledge, with an experienced guide, rather than tethering them to a fixed set of ideas and dooming them to follow a few well worn intellectual tracks.

As with any change, those of us entrenched in the old ways can find such changes alarming, disorienting and confusing. Where the young leap in, the more experienced among us hold back. And yet, undeniably, the world is changing, and the skills of yesterday are not going to cut it in the world of tomorrow. We need a generation of thinkers who love learning, can work together, will embrace uncertainty, and wish to forge new paths.

And what of us, the old guard? Well, it is, as they say, never too late. We can, with care, unschool ourselves. If you are game to try, come and join us for some ICT Free Learning at ICHK.