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What do you want to learn?
You have to feel sorry for educational reformers working within large educational systems. Everywhere they look they find constraints: entrenched bureaucracies, outmoded mindsets, rigid curricula and little motivation for change from within.
Students often fare little better in these systems. Naturally curious at the outset, they soon find their education to be a regimen of memorisation and the regurgitation of facts that have little obvious relevance to their daily lives. Scoring well on tests becomes their main impetus for learning rather than a genuine desire to know.
It is little wonder that people sincerely committed to change in education sometimes choose to leave the formal system to set up learning environments unencumbered by the constraints within. That is the case with a very dedicated group of administrators, teachers and parents at the Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning (DSIL), a small primary school set up three years ago to test out a radically different style of learning.
Established under the auspices of the Suksapattana Foundation as part of its ambitious Project Lighthouse, DSIL comes under the jurisdiction of the King Mongkut’s University of Technology where it is located. The school has almost complete autonomy in all academic matters. What it has done with this autonomy is intriguing.
This is learner-centred education to an extreme. The curriculum is project-based with the topics stemming almost entirely from the interests of the students. The teachers act as facilitators, helping students refine their topics and develop their problem-solving skills. They suggest fruitful areas of exploration and otherwise nudge the students in productive directions.
With the accent on student interests, a fixed curriculum is out. Indeed, a topic covered in year four of primary school in the national system might easily find its way into a project carried out by year one or two students at DSIL – if that is what they want to learn.
One constant, however, is the use of technology, particularly technology involving the computer. Like everything else at the school, this is learning by doing. From the earliest ages, students start using the computer as a tool for finding or displaying information, solving problems, developing games or even programming small robotic vehicles.
Another constant is teamwork. Students decide on the projects collectively; they plan and carry them out in teams. Interestingly, age is generally not a determining factor in a group’s composition. It is common, for example, to find a seven-year-old working side by side with a nine-year-old.
If this sounds like an invitation to anarchy, it is useful to know that the approach comes with substantial theoretical grounding. Indeed it is based on the constructionist theory of learning articulated by Professor Seymour Papert of the prestigious media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the alma matter of many of Suksapattana’s founders. Prof. Papert himself has regular input into DSIL and other Lighthouse projects.
Prof. Papert builds on a theory developed by the great child psychologist Jean Piaget that knowledge is constructed by the learner, not supplied by the teacher. Prof. Papert believes this is achieved best “when the learner is engaged in the construction of something external or at least shareable ... a sand castle, a machine, a computer program, a book.” In other words, a project.
With three years’ experience, DSIL students and staff have developed considerable expertise in project development and management.
“Project selection starts before the end of the term when the children start thinking about what they would like to learn,” says Worada Saetang, one of the school’s chief facilitators.
“This is something they are assigned to think about during the term break. Once the topic is chosen – like this term’s ‘junior scientist’ project – they are broken into smaller groups according to their specific interests such as plants, animals or the environment.”
Since projects generally last eight full weeks, it is important that they serve a clear academic purpose. “In the junior scientist project, they are learning about the basics of the process of scientific thinking, beginning with observation and investigation of the natural environment around them,” Ms Worada explains.
“We take them out on field trips to survey nature. They categorise leaves, they observe the life around them. They learn to make conclusions about how to categorise living things.”
Consistent with Prof. Papert’s concept of constructionism, projects culminate in some kind of tangible product. “They have freedom to produce this project with any equipment of their choosing,” Ms Worada says. “It can be with a computer or on paper or any other material.”
Including fruit. One of the most memorable products according to Nalin Tutiyaphungprasert, another senior facilitator, was a fruit juice students produced as part of their project on food and nutrition. The students’ goal was to make a saleable product and this led to lengthy experimentation – not always successful – to find just the right ingredients and proportions to make a juice tasty enough to attract customers.
The computer generally plays an important role in almost any project, from finding information on the Internet to the finished product, be it an animation, an e-book on CD-ROM or a full-fledged PowerPoint-like presentation.
Rather than using PowerPoint itself, however, the program of choice is often Microworlds Pro from Papert’s own company, Logo Computer Systems. Microworlds Pro is a versatile and surprisingly powerful multimedia programme based on the popular children’s programming language logo, a Papert invention.
Role of the facilitator
With only 24 students in grades one to three and fifteen full- or part-time instructors, DSIL staff members have a wonderful opportunity to work very closely with their charges and they make the most of it. At the same time, however, they have to be aware that their role is to facilitate learning and not to impart knowledge the traditional way.
This takes a big adjustment on the part of the students as well, especially when they first enter school. “One problem that we have experienced is that the young ones tend to be very dependent on the teacher,” observes Ms Worada. “Whenever they can’t do something, they ask for help from the teacher.”
One of the purposes of the twice-daily group ‘show and share’ sessions is to help the children learn independently. “We discuss goals for the day and at the end of the day, we ask them if they have met their goals,” Ms Worada explains.
There is a lot of one-to-one reinforcement as well. “Sure, you can ask the teacher,” she tells them, “but suppose there is one teacher and five students. If the teacher is not free, you have to help yourselves.”
A big part of the facilitator’s job then becomes helping the students help themselves. They quickly learn that there are often several ways of solving a problem, for example. This focus on creating independent learners carries over to the way facilitators address student’s questions.
Says Suksapattana chairman Paron Israsena, “If they have a problem, they come and ask the teacher, but the teacher will not just say ‘this is the way it is’. The teacher will say ‘Have you tried this? Have you tried that?’ The students will then go out and search for the information using the Internet or an alternative source. If you just give them the information, the learning process stops immediately,” he says firmly.
With projects playing such an important role in the curriculum, the facilitators are necessarily involved in the selection process. They leave the choice to the students, but they make sure the children have thought out thoroughly what they want to accomplish.
“Left to themselves, children naturally opt for what is fun, but we have to gradually help them see that there is another aspect, that is, what is to be learned and what materials are most appropriate,” Ms Worada says.
“We don’t forbid them from carrying out their chosen project, but we have them think about it more deeply. For example, why do you want to do this topic. What are you going to gain? What are you going to learn? They have to think purposefully.”
As an experiment during the past term, the students were divided according to age for their projects. The six- and seven-year olds became ‘young scientists’. Meanwhile, the eight- through ten-year-olds, prompted by their curiosity about what was happening in their bodies, became ‘young doctors’ carrying out explorations in the subjects of human anatomy and physiology.
The project was overseen by one of DSIL’s temporary facilitators, biologist Anongluck Kan-Ari. “They studied all kind of organs and systems, such as the digestive system, the cardiovascular system and the reproductive system,” she says.
“In addition, we went to Sirirat Hospital to see the anatomical museum and while we were there they were able to talk to the doctors. We also went to Kasemrat Hospital. They saw the nurses’ stations. They talked to doctors like the gynecologist, the paediatrician, the nutritionist and the lab technician and they saw the real operating room.”
In class each day, the students shared information they had gleaned from various sources, including reference books, pamphlets and the Bangkok Post. On the day of the learning post’s most recent visit, a student was reading information from a pamphlet on urinary infections.
Not the most accessible subject, the students were given the opportunity to seek out additional information. They were out of their seats immediately, rushing off to computers for Internet searches or to look for books or medical charts.
Within minutes, several students had congregated at the whiteboard, drawing diagrams of the urinary tract. Clearly, these youngsters are at home in the information age.
A big reason parents may hesitate to send their children into alternative educational programmes is their concern that the children may fall behind their peers in the core subjects required for university entrance. Partly as a concession to these concerns, DSIL offers regular math and Thai language classes in the afternoon.
But the projects themselves create a need for these skills, something which quickly becomes apparent to the students. This, says Ms Nalin, is a big advantage of the school’s approach because it creates the motivation to learn.
She cites the experience of a young boy student as an example. Feeling the need to take notes during discussions, he felt frustrated with how slowly he wrote. He asked her to assign him exercises from a book.
“The first day I gave him just one page because I didn’t want to give him a bad attitude about writing,” Ms Nalin relates. “But he said ‘it’s not enough. May I have two?’ After three months, he was the only boy who made a final report in writing.”
English is not a separate subject at DSIL. Instead, it is incorporated into almost every aspect of the programme. Much of the Internet research is necessarily done in English and the facilitators readily mix both English and Thai during discussions. In addition, the school employs two native speakers as facilitators.
Some topics taught formally in the national system are incorporated into the DSIL programme through routine activities. “Every morning we have meditation and we discuss what is good according to Buddhist teachings,” Ms Nalin explains. “In terms of social studies or government, we have them participate in a democracy instead of simply explaining what a democracy is. That helps them see that what they are doing is actually democracy.”
Does all this work? Internal testing appears to show that DSIL students are at least on a par with those in the national system in mathematics and Thai. Given the exposure they get to English, they are probably ahead in that area.
More important to those involved in the DSIL programme, however, is where the students stand in their understanding of the learning process and in their capacity to function in a rapidly-changing world community.
“Here,” says English language facilitator Paul Erith, “I’d like to think they have advantages over other students. Not so much academically, but in the group dynamics that they need to be successful. They do all the planning themselves. They work together and when someone has different ideas, they have to think how they can work together.”
For Ms Worada, the school’s learner-centred approach clearly has a positive effect in producing autonomous learners. “Our students don’t wait for the teacher,” she says. “They are able to help themselves whether it is through the Internet or in just asking other people.”