Colearning, An Introduction (Part One)

We’re calling it “colearning” (think coworking space, but for kids at school). Of course there are constraints: it’s only 47 minutes per day; it’s a class, for a credit, with high-stakes testing attached, and all that. But, look, creativity loves constraints (Thanks, 4.0 Schools), so we’re going to work within them.

First, though, a quick tour through the almost 15 years it took to land here.

My first stints in New Orleans were part-time and pre-Katrina, as a college student teaching in a funky little middle school program in the summers of 2004 and 2005. When I came back to New Orleans in 2008 to run that same program that had launched me in education, I returned to a landscape that looked different — physically, demographically, and educationally.

Post-Katrina New Orleans was becoming an experiment in building a public school system on charter schools. I wondered if this model could ever be implemented anywhere else. Would a system like this only come to pass in a city whose schools — which had mostly been failing — were literally washed away?

In 2012, having moved back to Virginia, I was doing some freelance work developing curricula and consulting on education policy. I was the weirdo in the coworking space who wasn’t developing an app. Anyone who gave me the standard coworking greeting, “What are you working on?” came quickly to wish that I had something to say about Javascript. It was pretty clear that Virginia was not likely to change its laws to allow for a bunch of charter schools, and I wasn’t really sure that was the right answer in the first place. Originally, charters were about giving teachers more autonomy. Why, then, weren’t we talking about “chartering” classrooms instead of schools? What if we moved the decisions one level closer to students?

It was less fun to talk to adults about the way schools should be than it was to be in schools, so I went back to teaching in 2014. As soon as I was back inside the walls of a school, my notions of big policy changes faded away. Like many other teachers, I figured I could close my door, do my job, and let the results speak for themselves. No need to worry my little head about reform initiatives.

But I could never fully shake the question of why more school systems didn’t move decision making closer to the students. Then I landed on my most absurd idea: The way to move decision making as close to the user as possible was to move decision making to the users themselves. How might we give students the autonomy to drive their own learning processes? Pedagogues love student choice, but teachers mostly manufacture token choices in students’ worlds. I wanted something more all-encompassing. I wanted independent study. I wanted student direction. (I wanted not to be the one to do the grading.)

I wanted a coworking space for kids. And I taught the perfect class in which to make it happen. But it would have to happen without any changes in policy — not in Virginia’s laws, nor the district’s or the school’s policies. It would have to exist within all the original parameters: a class, for credit, with high-stakes testing attached, and a student population more or less reflective of the diversity in the building.

And I had to ask permission.

[This is #1 in a series of posts chronicling an experiment in teaching and learning. Follow the project here or at inman.io/colearning.]