Thursday, September 9, 2010

Unconventional Education #2

Two of the reasons that I was so interested in Sugata Mitra's [1] TED Talk in my last blogpost are that I am now working as an educator and that I am a product of progressive education (in my formative elementary school years). From this, I understand the power of working in groups and students teaching themselves and each other.

I went to a progressive elementary school that was built on John Dewey's conception of experimental learning. We spent most of our time in school working in groups, block building, and wood working. We went on field trips to the source of each of the sites that we were studying. I remember vividly sitting through mass at a modern monastery when studying the life of medieval monks and getting up at 3am to go to one of the groups of vendors that supplies restaurants in order to see how the city worked. I gained a curiosity and a passion for learning there.

I picked the college that I did partially on the idea that it would be a return to these unconventional roots. Although it had grades, classes, and majors, like any traditional institution, there was a high premium put on working in groups for certain classes as well as an encouragement for self-competition rather than interpersonal competition. This was a lovely change from my traditional high school, and it fostered precisely the intellectual environment that I craved. In my senior year, I started a Heidegger seminar which met on Friday nights to discuss Being and Time. This class utilized a combination of technology (sometimes listening to Hubert Dryfus' lectures from his Philosophy 185 class, as well as individual in the group finding things online), and group work (the discussions every week) allowed us to gain an incredible amount of information out of the text. Emergence, in Mitra's words. We had very little outside intervention, except for a few visits from a wonderful German professor. I unfortunately was not able to read and participate in this as much as possible due to writing my thesis, but the Heidegger group was productive and wonderful and it was one of the great parts of my education.

The SAT prep that I teach involves some amount of group work in each class. Although often times the group work devolves into talking. The students in my class are tense about school, sports, and college applications, and many of them go to school together. However, the other day I witnessed a great moment. Two of the girls in my class, who have the most trouble with math were working together. One of the smartest, but also one of the tougher girls in my class, ended up in a group with them. When I came over to check on the group, she was helping them-- really explaining carefully how each of the math problems worked and encouraging them. I did not even have to help them out and I was able to focus on some of the other groups that were having trouble focusing. It underlined, for me, the true value of working together.

In some ways, that this self-generated learning is what I am trying to do this year. I am attempting to channel my curiosity in a way to further my own education and solidify those things I learned in the past in my mind. I am not, unfortunately, in a group of any kind (although there is an advanced calculus class at a local school I would absolutely love to take), but I am using the internet, the books I have around, and material from my old courses in order to try to create my own education. Part of the reason I write Platonic Psychology is that I provide a collection of resources for anyone who is out there looking, but more to provide me with a hypothetical group with whom I can interact. By articulating my thoughts to these theoretical people, I solidify my thoughts and allow them to grow (and hopefully generate emergence). So hopefully it will all work out.

  1. I just discovered his blog and found it to be thoroughly charming.

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