Groveling with Freedom within Structure

ImageThe Primary Innovation Studio is in full Fall Mode, with students reaching for academic goals and maneuvering social exchanges (both good and challenging). The honeymoon’s over, and students’ true needs and colors are glimmering and beckoning. Among students’ needs and efforts, they are working within a structure. This has been a challenging piece for me in this space as the walls and materials beg for complete choice indulgence. While contemplating and studying 21st Century Educational spaces, most articles and ideas are focused on grades 6 and up–as students have more maturity to self monitor, self regulate and work independently.  I don’t think that it will ever change that the majority of primary students (when in large group in one space) have to have routine, ritual and structure first before they can make those fabulous decisions that drive authentic inquiry and learning. I have really been feeling like a lone pioneer lately as there aren’t many novel examples of what the future primary classroom will look like.  No one told me that this pilot would be easy, and stepping out of the old paradigm has been especially daunting over the past few weeks.  I have quietly concluded that there are many structures in our traditional primary model that will not go away, unless young digital natives’ self control and stamina suddenly evolve–(Which will not happen, thank goodness!).

I do believe in choice for students.  Alfie Kohn theorizes this better than anyone in an article which addresses student burnout and disengagement. (1993—bits and pieces..)

“Combine that fact with the premise that there is no minimum age for burnout, and the conclusion that emerges is this: much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behavior may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.

To be sure, there is nothing new about the idea that students should be able to participate, individually and collectively, in making decisions. This conviction has long played a role in schools designated as progressive, democratic, open, free, experimental, or alternative; in educational philosophies called developmental, constructivist, holistic, or learner-centered; in specific innovations such as whole-language learning, discovery-based science, or authentic assessment; and in the daily practice of teachers whose natural instinct is to treat children with respect.

In each case, students are almost never involved in deliberating about such ideas; their job is basically to do as they are told.”

This will not happen without tons of work beforehand. Young students must move within classroom spaces and boundaries which are umbrellaed by guidelines–many of these determined as a community together. Often the room has to stop, everyone has to regroup and discuss the learning that is (or isn’t) taking place.  When gold nuggets arise naturally, that is the time to bring them to the “classroom table”, give some loud “woot-woots” and let the kids SEE what authentic inquiry LOOKS like. Young children are such copy cats by nature, and when they see the great stuff, they will emulate it.  Is this easy?  No.  Are we making baby steps toward an environment in which students are actively engaged in choice and learning? Yes.


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