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Can Schools Create a Culture of Learning By Doing?

Ensuring students know academic content is great, but teaching them to do something with it is essential.

What if we had a culture of "do" instead of a culture of "know" in our schools? That was the question posed by sixth-grade language arts teacher Bill Ferriter and three other educators at last weekend’s EduCon, an education innovation conference held in Philadelphia.

Ferriter writes on his blog, The Tempered Radical, that the group came up with the question during a session designed to push educators to dream big and develop ambitious solutions for the problems facing schools. Although knowing academic content is foundational, he writes, students often complain about feeling disconnected from what they’re learning because they’re never given the chance to apply their knowledge in meaningful ways. Models like service learning are proven to boost student engagement and reduce the dropout rate, yet the test-heavy school culture has created an environment where teachers simply cover the curriculum and students regurgitate facts onto a test.

Ferriter says his group realized they’d "have to work to take active steps to redefine almost everything about our schools," in order to create a culture of doing. Teachers would need to shift the philosophy of grading from its current focus "on content mastery" to a higher-order, "focus on demonstration of an ability to apply content in novel situations." The decision on whether to promote a student to the next grade would be based on "the use of artifacts to prove levels of mastery." Outside the classroom, school budget decisions would be less about textbooks and more about funding kids' "opportunities to interact with their worlds."

Each member of Ferriter's team pledged to take steps toward learning by doing in their own classrooms, like introducing "meaningful tasks" into the classroom experience. Ferriter acknowledges that many teachers fear falling behind the teaching schedule if they change their approach, but he says it's worth the risk if it means students might acquire a deeper love of learning because they’re actually applying their knowledge. If we're really going to innovate our way out of the recession, we're going to have to ensure students know how to do something with their education.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Mark Gstohl

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