One of the key design goals behind the Free Learning pedagogy was encouraging students to direct their own learning. Based on the experience that many students lack the skills to make the most of pure inquiry-based learning, Free Learning makes use of a map of varied learning opportunities to challenge students.
Over the past week I have been introducing the students and teachers of Year 5 and 6 at ICHK HLY (our Primary campus) to Free Learning. I have explained to students that the starting map is very small, but that I will be adding units as we go:
In particular, we are aiming to add units based on what students want to learn, in order that they feel themselves to be important agents within their own learning. The mechanism here is that the evidence that students submit to their first unit (Free Learning For Students, circle in blue in the map above, as an entry point) is a list of goals for ICT learning. By collating this list we have managed to put together the following list of units that students wish to have access to, and we are now in the process of building them:
Computer Teardown & Rebuild
Building A Website
VR world building
Inside a phone
Chemicals in electronics
Installing Adobe Flash Player
Given that these students are between 9 and 10 years old, this list constitutes a remarkably diverse and interesting self-directed curriculum. Being a typical teacher, I had underestimated their own self awareness in terms of what they don’t yet know, and was taken aback by the extent of this list. In reflecting on this process it strikes me that this offers us a useful model to apply to the challenge of engaging students and encouraging agency, self-direction and motivation.
Free running* invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. It is fun, engaging and highly motivating for those who participate. It takes a space (urban or otherwise) and turns it on its head, drawing new function from an existing, very fixed, form.
In much the same way, Free Learning aims to provide students with an intellectual landscape through which they can playfully discover their own path. It promotes creativity, individuality, team work, freedom and taking responsibility.
* In its spirit what we are talking about is slightly more like parkour, than free running. I thought they were the same, but as @isaacklw taught me, they are slightly different. Read here for more.
Tell Me More
Free Learning developed in response to my own experiences teaching ICT at International College Hong Kong, where I found myself slowly running out of steam as a classroom teacher. My experience was that as a teacher, working in the traditional school paradigm, I could construct teaching and learning opportunities that focused on all students, and that reached a minimum standard for most. However, to make these engaging and motivating, I had to work myself ragged, and in time, teaching and learning became rote and sterile. We (my students and myself) jumped through hoops together, to achieve things many kids were simply not interested in, or were encountering at the wrong time. Those who were engaged soared, a mass in the middle pushed on through in spite of it all, and the remainder suffered my terrible jokes for 3 years of ICT classes.
In this model, motivation is predominantly extrinsic, hinging largely on the energy and charisma of the teacher.
Free Learning dispenses with the pretense that students need to follow a set path as a group, by simply:
Offering a large online menu of learning choices for students to learn from (we call these units, and they look like this).
Allowing individuals and small ad hoc groups to chose their own path and pace through the units on offer.
Providing a way for students to record which units they have chosen as they progress, and then to submit evidence (e.g. photos, work itself, text) for each unit. This can be done via our Free Learning Gibbon module, or some other method.
Providing a way to map learning outcomes to units, and ways to see what students are currently working on, where they have already traveled, and what outcomes they have covered (or not)
Assessing learning formatively based on observation and discussion, with aspects of summative assessment based on student submitted work and other evidence.
In this way, we can provide more choice, more personalised pathways and more motivation for students to learn. Students spend less time sitting and listening to the teacher, and more time working hands on in ways they enjoy.
By asking students to cover a range of outcomes, we can still help them cover broad swathes of content, but this need not be a focus (and for me it no longer is). If we can free ourselves of the delusions that kids currently cover everything (which they don’t, in any meaningful way) and that we can meaningfully measure learning (which we can’t, in any meaningful way), then we can be comfortable with something less regimented and less like an assembly line. Do all students really need the exact same experience? No.
Free learning, as a model, affords us a chance to set the classroom up for success by throwing out baggage brought along from industrial, conformity-driven, pre-Internet education. It represents the use of technology to finally revolutionise classroom practice.
Have A Go
As a teacher, you can experience Free Learning as a professional development tool using GorillaPD, which gives you roughly the experience of a student. This is a free-to-the-public installation of Gibbon, with Free Learning installed on it, and a growing range of units to help teachers become better at what they do.
Real World Progress
We have now (as of April 2017) been running Free Learning at ICHK Secondary for two years, for a minimum of 50% of student contact time in ICT, and the result is more student engagement, improved classroom energy and zero focus on grades. I learn more and have more fun, and all the evidence suggests that my students do to. Learning new, interesting and useful things is now the prime concern. The proof, so they say, is in the pudding, which you can see via our Free Learning Showcase.
Excitingly, I have been in a position to ask some current and former students to write units, a couple of which are already under way.
For those units involving gear not available in school, students can negotiate with parents to purchase what is needed (this is already common practice in Year 9 where students do an independent unit).
As well as the assessment tools provided in Gibbon’s Free Learning module, I have also been using the Visual Assessment Guide with my Year 7-9 ICT, to enable longitudinal tracking.
“You had the presentation of the conference man. Your ideas resonate with me more than anyone else’s. You are a true inspiration to all educators. Keep spreading your message to the masses!” – Ryan Krakofsky, ICT Coordinator, Kingston Internal School
“I attended your free learning session at RCHK and I decided to use a modified version for our current media unit. I wanted to thank you for the inspiration for this…it has inspired me to see how I can use this type of workflow more often. I am certain that it has met my students needs much better.” – Patricia Thomson, PYP Teacher, RCHK
“It is less stressful without peer comparisons and deadlines. You can choose the subject you want to focus on, it makes the lessons all the more interesting.” – Student, ICHK
“For me it’s fun but hard ; )” – Student, ICHK
“I feel like it is great to let students study what they want to, but still have to complete certain units to be able to move on to the next one, that sort of makes it like a game with levels and different paths.” – Student, ICHK
“It is AWESOME!!!” – Student, ICHK
Some of the ideas here are based on the work of Sugatra Mitra and the related work shown in Good’s Future Learning video. Others have emerged from Toby Newton’s work on independent student learning in Human Technology at ICHK. This work is very much an extension of the work already being done by students at ICHK in their Year 7-9 ICT studies.
Credits + License
Free Learning is an original idea by Ross Parker (https://rossparker.org, @rossparker), created in December 2014 whilst working at ICHK. It is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.