Interest-Based Learning – Readings & Reflections from “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC

That learning should be interest-based is, to me, obvious; I base the curriculum of several digital journalism courses solely upon students following their interests. Of course, as a teacher, I also do my damnedest daily to wallop kids with material they will not only not approach with interest, but be bored by in large percentages. Such is the lot of the literature teacher in a traditional sense (there’s room for change here, but I’m only scratching the surface).  Still, plenty of stimulation from the readings and videos arose, and my short reflection is here, numbered by question:

  1. What did you find most interesting or surprising in the readings?
  2. What did you disagree with or have questions about?

1. I’ve written about Living and Learning With New Media before here and here. I love it, particularly the “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” heuristic. Providing the time, space, resources, and social opportunities for kids to work together or independently on chasing personal interests and to produce media (in my courses’ cases) based on it is my favorite part of my current job. Blending this heuristic with Mitchel Resnick’s brilliant creative spiral of Imagine Create-Play-Share-Reflect-Imagine provides the foundation for providing supportive learning environments for students to explore their own and shared creative processes.

2. However, what I found surprising, if not totally so, was how hard Joi Ito jumped up and down on school and his experience in it. Almost nobody goes broke in America these days by excoriating school; I also didn’t enjoy most of it, which is why I teach. Still, the degree to which academics beat up K-12 school is disconcerting to me and is a drumbeat that grows particularly tiresome, if not obviously hypocritical. (/soapbox)

1. Of course, as Joi Ito alludes to rightly in his talk, Mimi Ito loved books and structured her learning narrative around them – this works because reading is what school is largely based upon. A learner like Joi is destined to suffer if he is not a bibliophile. As Joi wrote on his blog, education should be more flexible and responsive, particularly by trusting the value of children’s interests – even when they are video games, etc, that stuffy adults almost reflexively distrust. But even as MOOCS start ruling the world, his experience echoes my own, in that as our interests get more and more focused and based on experience, we may also “find [ourselves] increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that [we] need to explore [our] areas of interest.” Finally, I loved “Dubai & Knowing the Unknowable” because it was an excellent explanation of why I have spent so much of my life abroad. Learning has many forms, and most are valuable.

2. The power of pull – I love it. How do we embed literacy instruction and guidance to shepherd younger students toward positive centers of gravity and away from, for example, the pull of Reddit’s found porn communities? I can’t be part of fostering such interests, nor can I value them at all. What is the role of guiding and modeling positive ethics as we offer opportunities for exploration, via messing around and geeking out?

Subtext is Engaging

Twice today I was captured in a classroom conversation about very different texts – one a short story, the other a persuasive essay on language, culture, and identity. In both cases, students began the discussion with their own ideas from a short exercise focusing on small sections of texts followed by small group discussions. Observing their small group discussions, I found they were all on track, sharing ideas revolving around important literal ideas and meanings. When we brought it back to the entire class for a conversation, ears pricked up when we began to circle ideas and meanings existing in the subtext, created through subtle mechanisms from a single word choice, to elusive concepts like tone.

As a few glassy expressions caught glints of interest, I was reminded of why I have so much fun with critical literacy. Students know something is going on here, and they want to dig in and uncover the dirty truth, or tricks, girding so much of communication. Always, a student or two discovers a funky bit jutting out of the surface of a text and, with a little focusing from me or from a peer, they start excavating until they uncover a critical piece of the subtext. You know they’ve grabbed something essential when vehement opposition springs up in a small group; there is always a naysayer. Once we get into an entire class setting, if I manage to ask the right questions and not blow the whole thing open, ruining the fun, it’s an amazing sight to see heads start nodding and kids start rushing to ask questions, or share an idea as the layers peel away.

Subtext – everywhere and nowhere. Man, it’s fun when they get after it.

100 Greatest Nonfiction Books

The Guardian has released great fodder for argument: the 100 greatest nonfiction books. I’m a nonfiction addict – the creative essay, persuasion in all its guises, academic study, education research, society & culture, the arts, history. I have just finished The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and am currently reading The Information by James Gleick. I often run fiction, poetry, and nonfiction texts concurrently, and the nonfiction generally turns over more quickly. This list is interesting because it runs from Herodotus to Clay Shirky, who is one of my favorite current thinkers. There are must reads from Sontag’s Notes on Camp to Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s arguably most excellent tome, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (outdone by his epic The Ancestor’s Tale, in my opinion), The Revenge of Gaiam and The Silent Spring in the environmental camp, In Cold Blood, Innocents Abroad, The Souls of Black Folk – the hits just keep on coming. Additionally, there are many titles like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that have reached cult status and which I have high on my list of what to read next. In literature The Uses of Enchantment and in journalism The Journalist and the Murderer caught my eye as unknowns, as well as The Story of Art, which shares a title with Simon Schama’s awesome BBC and much later produced television series all grabbed my attention.

Why is this list important? Any list represents a smattering of opinion at best, but this may spark conversation about nonfiction, which is a creative and under-appreciated genre, especially in high school English classes. Just today, I had five separate conversations with students who are abandoning advanced English coursework in favor of science and math. If we were teaching engaging, vibrant, creative non-fiction covering areas of student interest per student choice, perhaps we would be more likely to retain interest in more challenging English courses. Of course, higher level IB or AP English courses have debatable value, but I see value in students valuing the study of reading, writing, and communication. Students are not best served when they see English studies as an impediment to their scientific or mathematics careers. But, when they don’t get to see lists like this, how could they know what they’re missing? How could students know until they’ve missed developmentally essential time for developing their skills in examining writing for data, argument, and nuance and for writing fluently and vividly that the most famous and successful mathematicians and scientists are all great authors unless we have them read these books?

Literature includes nonfiction, which means literature is science, math, art, culture – haute and pop (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, anyone?), philosophy, and so much more. When English teachers expand their literary choices to include excellent nonfiction, everybody wins and departmental barriers are transcended, exposing the teacher as learner and engaging students in areas of personal interest. Students and teachers deserve a healthy helping of nonfiction and this list is a good starting point.