Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Flying High (learning on your own)

As some of you know, I'm writing a book on young people who build their own careers doing things they love outside the traditional corporate grind. While researching this topic, I'm coming across some great stories, like this one of Jamail Larkins, an acrobatic pilot and motivational speaker, or a young woman I just found who started a company that runs surfing camps for girls. On Thursday I'm interviewing a young man who started a toy company; I just wrote a profile of a young woman who designs and sells renegade needlepoint patterns (think sushi rolls and tattoos, not the bunnies and bonnets your grandmother stitched).

All of these bright, gifted young people were highly impatient with the corporate world. Big companies insisted they take on responsibility only when some higher-up deemed them ready. It's reminding me a lot of the impatience I heard from kids as I researched Genius Denied. These kids wanted to move on to new topics when they felt ready, not when their age or the textbook decreed that OK.

I'm writing my book in part because the corporate world's career ladders are disintegrating. In the next few decades, more of us will have to strike out on our own. For reasons from layoffs to burn-out, it's the rare person who will spend her whole career at one company. Even the academic world -- where many a grown-up gifted kid lands -- is increasingly relying on adjuncts, and so putting young PhDs in a position where they have to scramble to find work that fulfills them and pays them well. More and more of us will have to learn as we go. It won't even be clear what we *should* learn.

The problem is that this is the complete opposite situation from how we learn in school. There, it's very clear what we should learn -- the curriculum from grade 9, then grade 10. Even when we get to accelerate, it's still clear what's next. This is as old-fashioned a set-up as IBM's old lifetime employment career tracks.

But it's also a tricky issue to handle. Students do need a certain background in reading, writing and arithmetic, not to mention computer science and other fields. Many a graduate school of education has posed this question and decided that students should undertake experiential learning. The net result tends to be kids who don't know arithmetic but have a fun time talking with other students about problem-solving strategies. That's not an improvement.

But at least gifted programs on the high school level could start incorporating this independent learning issue. Students could telescope the high school curriculum into 2-3 years, with the option to continue regular advanced study for half days their last two years. The rest of the time they can work on rigorous independent projects. This will require a fair amount of teacher involvement -- and flexibility. I blew off the research project I was assigned in high school. But I know why I blew it off. It had to be an academic research project. I've never been interested in academic research. If I'd been allowed to devote that time to investigative journalism for our school newspaper, I would have been a lot happier.

I'm wondering if any readers have kids in schools that push independent work, and how this is handled. Handled badly, it can be a waste of time. Handled well, it could give kids a leg up on planning their careers and teaching them how they'll have to learn for the rest of their lives.

I'm betting the homeschooling parents reading this blog already do this :)


Quiltsrwarm said...

You're right, Laura, this is exactly the basic tenet of unschooling -- or child-centered learning, for the uninitiated! :)

As homeschooled kids get older, the whole mentoring form of learning becomes very important. Your child has an interest in farming? Locate a local farmer who is willing to have your older child help him/her on their farm and learn what it takes to run one (farming isn't easy!).

Mentoring at the public high-school level is done around here, but I'm unsure of the benefit to learning. Many of these public-school based situations put kids in an environment where they simply do the grunt work -- learning isn't a part of the deal, but it sure beats sitting behind a desk at school! :)

I'm all for independent projects (one local school district actually requires senior projects), but, as you said, Laura, if the process isn't conducive to learning (i.e., not child centered), it won't be an experience of real benefit to the child.

Of course public school is set up like the old IBM business model -- it was old, 19th/20th century corporate America that made public schools the way they are today. To change this model is difficult and time-consuming, and it's why I'm homeschooling and not bothering to advocate for change at this time. I've got enough on my plate! :)

Evan Adams said...

I went to a high school that operated almost exclusively through self-directed, project-based learning. And it was ungraded and competency based, so you passed the class if you could prove the competencies, even if you did it a different way than the assignment. A lot of students also did "independents", or took community college classes or did classes or sports at the more traditional high school two blocks away. It wasn't specifically a school for the gifted, but we probably had a higher fraction than normal. It was also a small school (300 students), with a high degree of individual attention, including having students work closely with a coordinator, as a point person for independent study and to help guide student choices about what classes to take. It worked well, but only for students who were highly self-motivated.