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Cornell's Education and Learning Newsletter

A New Culture of Learning: why giving kids choice in the classroom works

The narrative on education is changing. A shift in focus from both parents and educators promoting ideas likeself-directed and student-centered learning, flexibility and peer collaborationwith the aim of better equipping today’s kids to handle the increasingly fast-paced, digital world they’re growing up in.

According to Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown who co-authored the book, A New Culture of Learning,the learning that will define the 21st Century is happening everywhere around us, not just in the classroom. 21st Century learners are already engaging with their world with more autonomy than their predecessors, and since research has already proven that each student learns differently, shouldn’t we start allowing students more freedom to direct their education?

While some alternative styles of teaching and educational systems have been operating on the idea that children can and should be responsible for their own cognitive development for at least a century, it’s thanks to the explosion of technology and collaborative forms of media that these theories have begun to become more prominent within mainstream institutions. Today’s students expect a more interactive environment and have a desire to use developing technology and the world around them to help them learn.

There are more than a few studies which suggest the factory mentality which is typical of many of today’s schools isn’t conducive to fostering imagination or inspiring passion for academic pursuits. Research has proven that people,regardless of agesneed to feel a sense of control over their lives. It’s also proven that extrinsic rewards and punishments don’t work and can adversely affect intrinsic motivation.

However, studies have shown that self-directed learningis a natural path to deep understanding and ability. When students have a degree of control and ownership over the time and pace of their learning, or the space they learn in, they begin to feel begin to self-evaluate, reflect on their progress, and set goals to learn more. These skills don’t just stop being useful at the end of graduation. They’re life-long, transferable skills. After entering the workforce there is a need to be more independent and to have the ability to efficiently manage their own time.

Over the years these methods have also produced highly visible and successful graduates. Take for example, rapper Sean ‘P.Diddy’ Combs, or the founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. All of whom have said that attending a Montessori school contributed to their ability to think independently and played a role in their success.

To improve student participation, the classrooms of the future will need to empower student choice, increase engagement, and offer students the ability to take control of their own learning.

It has been said that the only constant in teaching is change, today most kids are as comfortable with a touchscreen as with a pen,it’s unlikely the current classroom-based model of learning can survive without adapting to the changing nature of learning in the 21st Century.

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