Free Learning: Unlocking Student Potential

The sport of free running invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. It is fun, engaging and highly motivating for those who participate. It takes a space (urban or otherwise) and turns it on its head, drawing new function from an existing, very fixed, form.

In much the same way, the Free Learning pedagogy aims to provide students with an intellectual landscape through which they can playfully discover their own path. It promotes creativity, individuality, team work, freedom and taking responsibility, using a map of interconnected units:

Tell Me More

Free Learning developed in response to my own experiences teaching ICT at International College Hong Kong, where I found myself slowly running out of steam as a classroom teacher. My experience was that as a teacher, working in the traditional school paradigm, I could construct teaching and learning opportunities that focused on all students, and that reached a minimum standard for most. However, to make these engaging and motivating, I had to work myself ragged, and in time, teaching and learning became rote and sterile. We (my students and myself) jumped through hoops together, to achieve things many kids were simply not interested in, or were encountering at the wrong time. Those who were engaged soared, a mass in the middle pushed on through in spite of it all, and the remainder suffered my terrible jokes for 3 years of ICT classes.

In this model, motivation is predominantly extrinsic, hinging largely on the energy and charisma of the teacher.

Free Learning dispenses with the pretense that students need to follow a set path as a group, by simply:

  1. Offering a large online menu of learning choices for students to learn from (we call these units, and they look like this).
  2. Allowing individuals and small ad hoc groups to chose their own path and pace through the units on offer.
  3. Providing a way for students to record which units they have chosen as they progress, and then to submit evidence (e.g. photos, work itself, text) for each unit. This can be done via our Free Learning Gibbon module, or some other method.
  4. Providing a way to map learning outcomes to units, and ways to see what students are currently working on, where they have already traveled, and what outcomes they have covered (or not)
  5. Assessing learning formatively based on observation and discussion, with aspects of summative assessment based on student submitted work and other evidence.

In this way, we can provide more choice, more personalised pathways and more motivation for students to learn. Students spend less time sitting and listening to the teacher, and more time working hands on in ways they enjoy.

By asking students to cover a range of outcomes, we can still help them cover broad swathes of content, but this need not be a focus (and for me it no longer is). If we can free ourselves of the delusions that kids currently cover everything (which they don’t, in any meaningful way) and that we can meaningfully measure learning (which we can’t, in any meaningful way), then we can be comfortable with something less regimented and less like an assembly line. Do all students really need the exact same experience? No.

Free Learning, as a model, affords us a chance to set the classroom up for success by throwing out baggage brought along from industrial, conformity-driven, pre-Internet education. It represents the use of technology to finally revolutionise classroom practice.

Real World Progress

We have now (as of April 2017) been running Free Learning at ICHK Secondary for two years, for a minimum of 50% of student contact time in ICT, and the result is more student engagement, improved classroom energy and zero focus on grades. I learn more and have more fun, and all the evidence suggests that my students do to. Learning new, interesting and useful things is now the prime concern. The proof, so they say, is in the pudding, which you can see via our Free Learning Showcase.

Have A Go

As a teacher, you can experience Free Learning as a professional development tool using GorillaPD, which gives you roughly the experience of a student. This is a free-to-the-public installation of Gibbon, with Free Learning installed on it, and a growing range of units to help teachers become better at what they do.

Final Thoughts

There is no right or wrong way to learn, provided students are motivated. Sadly, traditional classroom learning uses extrinsic motivation to hook some students, but leaves many listless and uninterested. Free Learning is one pedagogical approach to the problem of motivating students, but there are many more. The question I have for teachers reading this is what are you going to change in order to draw your students in?

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