Who makes the maze?

When someone tells me to complete a task in a specific order, I immediately and consciously decide that I will not do it in that order. I feel insulted, I feel bored, I feel restless, I feel perturbed with the very thought of jumping though a series of hoops THEY have set up for me. If someone lays out exactly what they want me to do, in blaring black and white, I have a visceral reaction to back away as quickly as possible.

Is this just me? Do I have oppositional disorder? Am I just a “difficult” person?

I was raised a very obedient person. I went to an all girls Catholic school run by ferociously controlling nuns. I know first hand about “looking” like you are doing the right thing (what you are told). I went through high school, for all intents and purposes, looking like I was “supposed to look”: uniform right length (not more than 2 inches above the center of the kneecap), socks pulled up, sleeves buttoned, no makeup, no hair decorations etc. But in reality, I was not there, it was a veneer of me. I got the A’s, I played the role, but the depths of my person was not present. In Grade 11, during Math, English and Philosophy class, us students spent the majority of class time writing a collective story. The copy book would circle the room, and we would add-on bits to the sweeping romance (it was an all girls school and we did spend A LOT of our time considering boys) adventure saga. We were fully engaged, we were fully committed and we were writing non stop for a real audience. No one told us to. No one suggested how, no one broke us into groups and said “You will be the recorder, you will be the encourager (and sorry if this is your gig, it is just not mine). We collaborated on a task that had real meaning and we solved a real problem (we were bored to death).

High school did teach me one thing and that was that I wanted to get out to find my soul. Luckily high school did provide clues as to where I might find “me”. I fled in search of my soul to India. I had seen a video in grade nine about Mother Theresa; she quite obviously did have a soul and was very connected to it, I had to meet her!

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, (who is a college drop out and describes himself as a non iterative learner) says: “disobedience is really what creativity is at some level, you don’t get the Nobel Prize for being obedient” and that in kindergarten “we are extremely creative and then we go to obedience school.”

When I watched with joy and a sense of wonder, the gardening teacher from the South Bronx, Stephen Ritz, who with the help of students, community and families has grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables right in the Bronx, while generating extraordinary academic performance. These are real kids, doing real stuff that matter deeply to them and to the world around them. I know that the maze these kids are moving through is not one created for them by a teacher; it is created fresh for the first time as they themselves, create the path as they move through the real project.

Front load, back load, inquiry, PBL, UBD, Galileo, question first, direct instruct last……it makes me dizzy trying to keep it all straight. It seems there is a war of sorts, (in the Twittersphere at least) jostling about which way is the BEST, most authentic and offers the deepest learning…..err, but isn’t THAT all about US?: our egos, our ideas, our self-flagellation. The quality of the maze we can create for our cute little mousies, then we congratulate ourselves on the brilliance of the maze design and squeal (inwardly of course) when said mousies arrive at the other end. Don’t get me wrong, I am a maze designer and quite frankly love designing learning pathways for children, it is one of the most creative aspects of my life. Yet somehow it just does not seem to fit…anymore

Ewan McIntosh says:

“For too long teachers have been doing the most important part of learning for the kids. I want young people than can go into the world and find problems that really need solving.”

He further describes the problems that we are offering students right now as:

“Problems that, quite frankly nobody gives a damn about.” 

The design flow he describes is one that grabs me and I keep returning to reread it.

He describes design thinking in 5 steps:
1. Immersion: Observation and Empathy (interesting: Tony Wagner in his book Creating Innovators identifies empathy as the first characteristic of “design thinkers” as empathy! I like when ideas keep popping up!)
2. Synthesis
3. Ideation
4. Prototyping

From my observations and experience, people never experience deep learn in a linear fashion and do not “get it” at the exact time, regardless of the path you create or don’t create for them.

I, as a learner, want to be tantalized, seduced and offered delectable clues that I can choose to use OR NOT. I want to be drawn, heart and soul, fall deeply in, get lost and have to fight to find MY WAY out. I want the hunt, I want to lovingly discover, piece by piece the big picture. AND more than anything I want it to be MY picture.

Sugata Mitra’s words “learners invent their own pedagogy” have haunted me for a solid year. Last year in the classroom, I saw with my own eyes, students designing methods for themselves to collaborate without any input from me. When I got out-of-the-way and I produced “no maze” to run, only a welcoming and safe space with an open trusting environment, students would decide when they needed to watch the video, and how they would watch it. They created complicated and sophisticated protocols to watch videos collaboratively. This is just one example that I saw in my flipped classroom.

I believe him when he says and he has been at this idea since 1999:

“Groups of children can achieve educational objectives by themselves. Google IS converting itself into usable knowledge, in groups, with freedom.”

He calls it a “self organized learning session”.

I am moving very cautiously this year, trying my best to not set up huge mazes with reward systems at the end. In the short time I have been back, it is unsettling.

HELP, I am really trying to find a way out of this maze!

  • Do the order of events/task really matter? Or does it matter more, that students are fully connected with interest to the task or topic?
  • Who should make the maze?
  • Just because the maze has an intelligent maker who is through and thoughtful does it make it a good maze?
  • What do students “get” at the other end of the maze?
  • What do you say do when students do want to go through the maze?
  • How much time and energy did you invest in creating the complexity of your maze?
  • Can we stop making mazes for student to travel through and still exist within in the system as it stands today?

5 thoughts on “Who makes the maze?

  1. Carolyn,

    Really intriguing post as always. I never really thought about my unit plans as a “maze” until now! But it’s true! We create the pathway of learning for the students based on our curriculum standards, assessment requirements etc…and we are limited by our own levels of creativity and knowledge. Although I tried to design a unit in which students can follow their own paths, now that I think about it, it all seems artificial. They are not the creators; they are still the followers of my options. In my unit plans there are certain required activities that must be completed in a certain order – like a mastery class. But maybe that’s not necessary? Maybe the students deserve more freedom to, as you said, “lovingly discover” the big picture on their own. Maybe it’s time to stop holding their hands as they navigate their own pathways through the maze of learning. I don’t have any answers for you, but thank you for making me think!

    • Juliana, Yes, exactly, “maybe students deserve more freedom”, that is what I am wondering too. Also maybe, in my teacher-centric way I believe that I can design a superior maze for them, that will guarantee that they get to the designated spot at the desired time. So maybe part of it is about efficiency. But then I wonder, is it efficient to “hold” students captive till 17 or 18 and then let them figure it out how to design mazes for themselves. Perhaps if the started making their own pathways from the get go that they would come out with deep and meaningful passions?? Confusing but good confusing! Have you read or watched Alan November? He also speaks about this idea.
      Best to you Juliana and thanks for your readership,

  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Excellent (and truly thought provoking) post. I have not watched the 52min video of the keynote but I watched the other two videos. I was particularly intrigued by Ewan McIntosh’s message. Something happened to me this summer that links directly to these ideas. This summer I listened to a presentation from a teacher who teaches elementary school here in BC. She mentioned that she did not believe in “prescribed learning outcomes”. She felt that authentic learning could not be “prescribed” and her philosophy was to provide students with stimuli and let the learning happen naturally. There was no “end goal” that every student was expected to arrive at. Different students would explore their learning in different ways and arrive at different places. Well… this concept pretty much scared the crap out of everyone in the (all teacher) audience (including me). While I have always prided myself on allowing students great freedom in the ways they explore their learning outcomes, I have always used the PLOs as my ultimate guide. So while I don’t structure the “maze” in any particular way…there is still an “exit” that all students are aiming to find regardless of the method they choose to get there. I have been thinking about the idea of “prescribed learning” since that day. Removing the pre-determined “end point” would pretty much redefine my entire purpose as an educator. I am not opposed to this, but you can understand how the idea might be a little intimidating (and it certainly relates back to our discussion about how the “why” of public education is changing).

    Sorry for the lengthy response. I don’t have any asnwers for you either at the moment but this topic has definitely got me thinking.

    • Naryn, I love your long response and although we have never meet (yet) face to face, I feel we on somewhat similar paths in our evolution as teachers/learners. What you are describing is exactly what I am grappling with and have been (amongst many other things!!) since I first watched Mitra last summer. What he said was so startling and so way out there, but at the same time, what he had found in his studies reflected so accurately my own experience as both a learner and as a teacher. I have watched Ewan’s keynote a couple of times and each time get something new from it, but what grabs me the most is the feeling and sense of urgency that we need to get students/ourselves connected to real problems (and real could simple mean problems that you as an individual feel are important. I love your quote “authentic” cannot be “prescribed” by anyone but the learner. Authenticity must live, grow and be rooted within the learner. I am trying to read “A Dialogic Curriculum” http://www.amazon.com/The-Dialogic-Curriculum-Teaching-Multicultural/dp/086709365X written by secondary English teachers (who created an English course that was just this). It is dense reading, and I find it hard in parts top relate to as the are describing it all from their English course perspective, but it might interest you? (I know another book!)
      As always, thank you for your kinship in this crazy journey we are all on!

  3. As I read your post I found myself thinking about Richard Feynman recounting how, as a student, he would analyze and deconstruct what he was taught at school and then reconstruct it in terms of his own experience and understandings. I was already falling in love with math, physics and engineering when I came across Richard Feynman’s writings but his descriptions of learning (and teaching) made me feel right at home. Check out his writings if you are interested. Here is a BBC interview with him on YouTube: http://goo.gl/GXDha.

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