|What Real Learning Looks Like|
One of the most commonly asked questions about The Trillium School is: “how do kids learn in an environment where there are no classes?” This is one of the greatest fears of parents, even those who believe strongly in our school. Often the question is asked by parents who will, even in the same conversation, freely acknowledge that they struggled to learn or retain information in classes when they were in school. The parent who talks about how she never learned math in math class may well be the same one who worries that her child will never learn math without a structured class.
This isn’t hypocrisy on the part of these parents – our culture is set up to value learning in the mode that we consider traditional (never mind that schools in their present form have only existed for a little over 100 years), and the fear that one’s child might not get a successful education is deeply ingrained and constantly perpetuated – hence the constant pressure to get good grades, perform well on standardized tests, and get into honors and AP classes.
I’ve had the opportunity to experience a lot of different learning environments, and observe a lot of people in these different environments. When I reflect on my observations, two principles stand out to me as being vital to any conversation about learning in a Sudbury model school. These principles, while sometimes acknowledged in mainstream education, are rarely given any real weight. In contrast, they are fundamental to the way we think about learning here at Trillium.
The first principle is that, in order to really learn, a person has to be genuinely interested in the subject, or they need to be deeply invested in the subject for some other reason – for example, if you really want to be an engineer, you probably need to know a certain amount of math, even if math generally isn’t your favorite thing; someone with a genuine desire to learn will find a way to. You can’t fake this, and you can’t force it. In my high school and college careers I knew a great many people (myself included) with good or excellent grades who felt they had learned little or nothing in a lot of their classes. Someone who isn’t interested in history might “learn” enough history to pass the test or write that final paper, and even get a great grade, but the information won’t stick with them if they don’t care about it. Without a reason, a genuine motivation that is internal, rather than externally imposed, the energy and focus to really learn a subject cannot be mustered.
The second principle is that what a person is learning isn’t always what it seems – but we all are almost always learning something. When I was a kid, like many kids, I went through phases of deep fascination with a variety of esoteric things – I checked out books from the library on zeppelins, D-Day, Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki expedition, and other things that the librarians were often surprised to see in the hands of a six year old. Am I today an expert on any of these things? No, but my interests led me to dive into books that most people would have said were much too advanced for someone my age. The strides I made in my reading during that time were huge, and I would never have made them had I been forced to read things that didn’t interest me instead. I didn’t grow up to be an aeronautical engineer or World War II historian, but I did grow up loving to read and write.
In the same way, children in classes that don’t interest them are learning something – but instead of learning geometry or world history, maybe they’re learning how to look like they’re paying attention while daydreaming, or how to retain just enough information to pass the test.
Many more ‘traditional’ school programs acknowledge this fact on some level – the goal of primary and secondary education is often said to be to teach people how to think and learn for themselves – yet the real focus remains on ever more testing and grading. The result is students who are skilled at taking tests and getting good grades.
So how does a school like Trillium work from these two principles to create an environment conducive to real learning? At Trillium, classes happen only when requested by students and the average student probably spends 98% of their time at Trillium not in a class. Students direct their own learning, free to go wherever their excitement, passion, and interest leads them. This means that students are able to spend the maximum possible amount of time in a state of excited interest – the optimal condition for real learning to occur. What is learned will differ vastly from one student to the next, but we always trust that what students are doing has value to them.
For example, our school is frequently swept by fads that can last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Four square, freeze tag, and Pokemon cards are just a few that have come through in the past year. The latest is Dungeons and Dragons – several kids are extremely excited about this game right now. While many parents might raise eyebrows at reading this, the learning potential of this game is vast – in addition to being fantastic exercise for the imagination, the game features numerous thick, complex rulebooks written with adults in mind, and not a little number crunching. I can personally attribute a great deal of my facility with both words and numbers to playing D&D as a kid, and I expect the same will happen with several students – the interest in the game makes the complex rules and numbers exciting, rather than daunting, and provides great incentive to understand and master material that might otherwise seem to be out of reach.
One of the great advantages students at Trillium have is the freedom to dive as deeply as they wish into what interests them, be that a book, a craft, a game, or any other activity. No Trillium staff member will ever say “hey, it looks like you’ve been playing with those Pokemon cards all day. Maybe you should do something else with your time.” If a kid wants to spend his whole day organizing his Pokemon cards, no one will question the decision. And if you’ve ever watched a child organizing a card collection, it’s clear that a lot of thought goes into the process. It’s impossible to know what exactly is being learned – maybe organizational skills or reading, or perhaps something totally different – but hard to deny that something deep and valuable is happening.
Because we recognize that learning is catalyzed by excitement, we allow and encourage students to spend as little or as much time as they like on whatever they find exciting. When a person has gained what he or she needs from an activity, the excitement may fade, and it’s time to move on. When the excitement doesn’t fade, a student is allowed the time and space to really dive deeply into a subject.
So what does real learning look like? At Trillium, it has as many faces as there are students (and perhaps even several per student). It may look like play, conversation, or hard, focused study. It may go in stops and starts, or in continuous hours and days of concentration. It may happen individually, or in groups. It may look like a “class,” with a “teacher,” but more often not, and when it does, the roles of teacher and student may be quite blurry.
What all of these forms of learning do have in common is that they are driven by the learner, from within, and not by external forces such as assessment, pressure from authority, or what a pre-written curriculum states is important. It’s difficult not to learn in a state of excited interest, and one of the goals of The Trillium School is to help each student discover that state and spend as much time there as possible. In this way, Trillium creates an environment where real learning goes on all the time, in every form imaginable.