So, What Do You Want To Learn?

What happens when teachers and instructors allow students to actively choose what they wish to learn instead of listening to lectures of mandated course material?  A recent article in WIRED magazine examined a teacher who did just this at a school of mostly poor and academically failing students in Mexico.  The teacher, Juarez Correa, was fed up with traditional teaching and the government-mandated curriculum.  He decided to try a ‘radical new teaching method’ and simply asked the students, “So, what do you want to learn?”  That year one of his female students produced the top score in Math for the entire nation and many others scored in the top tier.

This teacher had stumbled upon an emerging educational philosophy that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom.  Today we have instant access to almost infinite information.  This has changed how we think, communicate, and work together.  Students no longer need to memorize facts just to score well on a test.  Our workforce instead needs creativity, innovation, and independent thinking both for job satisfaction and for competitive advantage.  One could argue that these things have always been important and that this is nothing really new.  However there were more manual labor jobs available during the industrial age that did not require these abilities.  The workplace of that age valued “punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else”.  For technology-based companies today who survive on new ideas that is no longer the case.

One fascinating story that helped start this trend happened in a slum in New Delhi.  A software developer and trainer, Sugata Mita, placed a computer into a nook in a wall separating his office from the slum.  He was curious to see what the kids would do if he said nothing.  He simply powered it on and watched to see what would happen.  To his surprise, the kids quickly figured out how to use the computer.  He tried other experiments over the years including loading a computer with material about molecular biology and set it up in a village in northern India.  He told a group if 10-14 year old kids that there was some interesting stuff on the computer and then did the same thing.  He walked away.  Over a period of 75 days the kids figured out how to use the computer and began to learn.  Over another period of 75 days with the encouragement of a local adult they could answer 50% of questions on a molecular biology test correctly.  “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all adult restrictions, they will self organize around it, “ Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”  The computer isn’t magical; it’s simply a tool.  Given free reign the kids will gravitate to what interests them.
“If you put a computer in front of children and remove all adult restrictions, they will self organize around it, like bees around a flower.”  - Saguta Mitra
We are in an exciting time for learning and education with access to new tools and knowledge and a new breed of educators are taking advantage of this, according to WIRED.  “To these educators knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration.”  Teachers use their education and experience to provide questions, not answers, and then step aside so students can teach themselves and each other.  They are creating ways for children to discover their passion and uncovering talent and ideas that may not have been found otherwise.

Our thought-process, guiding principles, and environment at Start Code follow these same ideas.  We give students the tools and direction to create with technology and then we step back to see what they come up with.  All of our material is project-based because the kids don’t want to hear lectures.  They have an amazing tool in front of them in the form of a laptop and they wouldn’t pay attention to us if we lectured on anyway (just sit in on most any college lecture today and you will see this in action.)  We give the kids a path to follow and then we mentor them and help them along so they don’t get stuck or too frustrated.  We encourage them and help them bring their creative ideas to life resulting in often fun and surprising results.  We provide the path and material but it’s up to the students to bring the creativity, curiosity, and motivation.  When the students work and collaborate in this type of environment you can often feel the energy and it’s exciting!  Don’t get us wrong.  It’s not easy to create this environment and it takes the right tools and content to for it to work, but this is what we do behind the scenes and it has worked well for two years now.  We look forward to seeing what the kids come up with next!