Moving around the country has seriously put a cramp in my tree identification game. I don’t mean to brag, but when I was in high school, I was able to name at least 40 coniferous and deciduous trees native to Illinois. If you wanted proof, I had a binder full of their leaves along with identifying tags explaining their scientific names and other pertinent information.
I didn’t take the binder to college with me, but I might have been known to point to a tree as friends and I walked across the quad and say, “Do you know what kind of oak that is?”
They never did – fools – and, self-satisfied with the setup, I’d let out a soft chuckle and lay some knowledge down. Making friends was difficult.
The binder and leaf collection were part of a project assigned in my biology class. Our assignment was to find and correctly identify at least 40 trees native to Illinois. I can’t say we loved it. I also can’t claim we saw the value in it. Even more grumbling was done when we learned the Japanese maple we’d found wasn’t native.
For years after that project I did, in fact, point to and name trees aloud. When I moved to Florida, I considered buying the southeastern complement to my Audubon Society guide to the trees of the northern US. It turned out I’d started to identify as someone who knew trees, and I liked what it meant about how I thought about my surroundings.
On its face, this story seems to go against my belief that learning and education are at their best when driven by the curiosity of the learner. I wasn’t inherently curious about trees. I’d picked up the basics when I was in elementary school, was grateful for syrup, and had had my fill.
It took a teacher creating an experience in which I needed to ask questions for my curiosity to re-emerge. This belief in the creation of targeted experiences to draw out curiosity that are aligned aligned with the goals for learning is a key aspect of what draws a line between how I thinking about learning and teaching and those who champion unschooling or open schooling.
I should also point out I would not design the experience in the same way. I would present the subject of study to my students and then drafted questions for exploration with them. We would have co-created our plan for finding the answers we wanted. I would have attempted to activate their curiosity at the outset rather than counting on the project to lead to them being slightly weird adults who can’t stop asking, “What kind of tree are you?”
From Theory to Practice:
- Begin a lesson or unit of study by asking students what questions they have about the topic. This may take some time at the outset and some creative thinking for content that might not appear inherently interesting to kids on its face.
- Once you’ve got your questions, follow up with, “And how will we know when you’ve learned this?” While this may sometimes mean completely co-designing performance tasks with your students, it needn’t always. Sometimes, you may come to the table with a basic outline to prime the pump and invite them to help you fill in the holes.
- Don’t think you’re done when you’re done. It’s tempting to move on to the next project when you wrap one up. Skipping reflection means leaving a lot of information on the table. Take students back to the beginning of the process, have them consider what they did, made and learned. Then, ask them what you or they could have done differently to improve the learning.
This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.