You Learn What You Live

April 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

This past weekend I had the opportunity to watch my 13 & 14 year old sons tackle and solve a real world problem that most of their peers, and I would speculate most adults, would not have even attempted. The rear door latch on our Chevy Astro Van broke and rather than take the van into the garage I asked my boys to fix it. I need to qualify, neither of my boys have any training in mechanics, nor do I, and none of us has ever had to resolve a problem like this before. I also need to explain that both of my boys have always been home schooled and have grown up in an environment where learning is stressed as part of what makes us human. I have always argued that whether one believes we are evolved or created there is no denying that we are learning beings–that is one of the most amazing aspects of the human condition. As a classic constructivist I hold the position that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge–learning is all about making meaningful connections. The world around us often provides the best learning environment–if we choose to use it as a learning environment.

So–asking my boys to fix the van on a Saturday morning was nothing that surprised them nor was it something that overwhelmed them. They simply jumped into the back of the van and started assessing the situation and came up with a plan of attack. In less than 45 minutes they had removed the door panels and frames, unlatched and opened the doors, and identified and removed the broken part. The most challenging part of the whole repair was the trip to the auto-wrecker and the search for the replacement part which required scouring through over 25 wrecked vans–apparently this is a common problem with Chevy vans. The removal of the replacement part took only a few minutes which was good because we had less than 5 minutes before the wrecking yard closed.

It was amazing watching my sons install the replacement latch and reassemble the interior panels and frames of the two rear doors–they looked like seasoned professionals and had a confidence that you don’t generally see in teens. Other than helping them with inserting the latch rod into the pressure fitting on the latch pin (my hands are considerably stronger than my boys) they did all the work. This Saturday morning was in no way extraordinary and other than telling my boys I was proud of how well they worked together and complemented them on how quickly they resolved the problem nothing special was done because this is just the way that the Harapnuik household works and what the Harapnuik brothers are expected to do.

This experience and many more that have preceded it remind me of a fundamental question that we in academia need to address. Shouldn’t experiential or active learning and real world projects be used for all instruction? I have been pondering this question for many years and this past Saturday’s events remind me of an an article  and a conversation I had with my youngest son when he was 10 that should call us to action.

In The Read Write Web Blog post Can New Media Be Taught in Schools? Marshall Kirkpatrick argues that you cannot genuinely teach New Media in school but rather have to immerse students in the new media tools and systems through experiential learning and projects. New media has to be experienced to be learned and ultimately understood. Kirkpatrick sarcastically asks:

Tests on Twitter, wiki-style study groups, students quizzed on yesterday’s most popular YouTube videos and the biggest hits on – is this what the future of education is going to look like?

Common sense would dictate that this just doesn’t seem reasonable, yet so much of our educational system is based on recipe and regurgitation. So many in academia hold critical and analytical thinking as the “gold standard” but so much of what we do doesn’t go much beyond the repetition of information. Should we be encouraging our learners to learn how to learn? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to solve real world problems?

With this context in mind, a conversation with my younger son several years ago will reveal just how far away from this ideal our education system is. While riding up the chairlift on a downhill mountain biking trip I was discussing potential areas of special interest that my boys would like to explore in the upcoming fall.  Since we are very active downhill mountain bikers we need to constantly repair and maintain our bikes. My younger son (at this time 10 years old) is a natural mechanic and simply enjoys maintaining and repairing his bike and after recently replacing his entire drive-train (derailleur, shifter, cables etc.) by himself, I realized that he may be ready to move into some formal mechanical training and suggested that we take a bike mechanic course together. My goals were twofold. First, I wanted use one of his natural interests and use bike mechanics as an avenue to explore the fascinating aspects of science like physics, chemistry and engineering. I also wanted another opportunity to expose my son to the traditional learning system or courses, classes, tests and the like. Even though we home school I have regularly put my boys into our traditional system for a variety of classes to insure that they are able and prepared to take instruction from others and are able to deal with how the rest of the world is taught. We have also have our boys take the year end HLAT or similar exams to insure that they are comfortable with the whole testing process.

Unfortunately, as my boys get older and move into higher grades getting them to agree to this process and justifying the reason for doing so is getting harder and harder. My younger son’s response to a formal bike mechanic course was:

Dad do we have to—why can’t we just learn by working on the bikes. Taking a course takes so much time and you really don’t get to do very much and you just don’t learn anything and…. Why can’t I just take my whole bike apart and put it back together–this is what we have done so far and I know a lot….

In an attempt to justify a formal course I explained that in a well designed course the content will be well laid out and course would follow a good text book or similar course material in a logical fashion. I also tried to justify that we could/would have access to an expert who could help us work through problems that we may not be able to resolve ourselves. My son responded in saying

I’ve worked on bikes long enough to know that there isn’t anything that we couldn’t figure out on our own–it may just take us a while.  We could look things up on the Internet and find the answer if we got stuck-that’s what we did when we were figuring out how to fix and solder our guitar….

My next attempt at trying to justify a formal course included the typical “you get out of a course what you put into it” and I also tried to include the justification that he needed to get more experience in our traditional learning system.

At this point my older boy piped in on the conversation and affirmed the notion that courses just take too much time. He complained that it normally took 10-15 minutes for the teacher to get everyone settled down to the point where they started to do some work and then 10 minutes later they moved to a new location or different subject and had to go through the whole setting down process once again. These are courses like creative writing, physical education, science workshops and field trips and other opportunities where most kids are motivated to be engaged–I shudder to think of what my son’s would think of learning math, language arts, or social in a traditional setting. The following questions from my older son have motivated me to action:

Why do they waste so much of our time? Will it get any better when we get to University? Why can’t you fix it?

I have been pondering this conversation and the resulting questions for the past several years and I agree with my sons. Why can’t we fix it? We need to move from the passive educational environment of main lecture points, rubrics, individual competition and standardized testing to an active educational environment of interactive presentations, critical and analytical thinking, collaboration and meaningful projects. We need to create an environment where creativity, innovation and exploration flourish. For the most part that was not the environment I was subjected to in my 12 years if primary and secondary and 13 years of post secondary education. I did tough it out and made the most of all my courses but it really didn’t have to be that way and for the generations to come it needs to improve.

We can do better. We all know how valuable it is to learn by doing, by experiencing life and by real world projects. We just need to work this into our formal system. The research on constructivism, active learning, experiential learning and many other approaches and theories confirm that our educational system can be radically improved if we make the effort. Our kids, young adults and all our learners for that matter deserve this effort. We all need to work together to “fix it”.

Dwayne Harapnuik

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