Alexandria Online

Monday, April 1, 2013

Collect, Classify, Listen, Copy: Unplugged Learning

In 1972, my Sixth Grade teacher had us create our own leaf collection. Mr. Walker, an avid botanist and environmentalist, had done this for many generations of students, who had grown up, graduated, and come back to visit him and tell him, "I still have that leaf collection we made in Sixth Grade."

Many of the elements of what is known as "21st Century Learning" were completely absent. We traveled around campus in early Fall or took field trips to local parks or private properties to collect leaves. Each student got a leaf from each specimen of tree or shrub; each student pressed it when we returned to the classroom; each student mounted it on paper exactly as Mr. Walker instructed us to. Once the leaves where pressed and mounted, Mr. Walker wrote the Latin name of the specimen on board; we copied the name into our book; he read a brief description of the specimen from his notes; we copied exactly what he dictated. At the end of the project, we all had exactly the same thick, three ring binder full of mounted, classified leaves.

There was absolutely no creativity, no individualism, no differentiated learning, no analytical thinking, no "higher-level" skills, no critical thinking, no technology or media literacy, no innovation. Nor was there an assessment at the end of the project.

Naturally you can guess what ironic observation I am going to pass on to you now: that we learned a lot from that project; that no one will ever forget doing it; that we developed authentic confidence by acquiring skills and mastery; that we were very proud of our very own, first book. We had to be exact. We learned to listen, imitate, copy, reproduce. And the book we produced was a completely accurate, flawless recreation of a small circle of useful, existing scientific knowledge.

That experience was very similar to the experience my father would have had when he was in Sixth Grade. But my son has had a very different experience. It would be hard to validate the following comparison, but in some ways I believe that I feel older at the age of 52 than my father felt when he was 52. His world changed pretty fast, but mine has changed faster. He was a child in the era of steam locomotives, watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon on a black and white tv with his own, young children, and had grandchildren who used computers in college. But he never owned his own computer. And neither did I until I was 28. His sons copied notes into a notebook; my son does research using online sources.

There was nothing wrong with the leaf collection project in 1972 and there is still nothing wrong with it. But it cannot be repeated today. Those activities will not resonate with 6th graders in 2013 as they did in 1972. They will not recognize it as education and will not respond to it. Is our 21st Century way better? It's no better and no worse; but now it is the only way.