Friday, January 29, 2010

The Darunsikkhalai School of Innovative Learning: Part One

I’ve been teaching at DSIL for nearly a month now, and so I feel qualified to expound on the nature of my job and the efficacy of this school. Offering a few snap judgments, though, won’t be easy: DSIL operates under a complex and opaque educational doctrine, a set of uniquely Thai cultural mores, and –

I’m sorry. I’m less than a paragraph into this post and already I’m spouting misinformation: namely, I had the audacity to call what I do here “teaching.” I won’t make that mistake again.

What I am, according to my contract’s verbiage, is a Facilitator. No doubt you suspect, as I did before I began here, that the distinction between Teacher and Facilitator is primarily a semantic, and not functional, one. But the two positions actually confer very different roles/responsibilities, and to refer to myself as a teacher is grossly inaccurate*. To understand why that is, it’s necessary to know something about Constructionism – DSIL’s organizing philosophy and its raison d’etre.

*All the students do, in fact, call me Teacher Ben, though maybe that's just because Facilitator Ben would be kind of a mouthful. They've also taken to calling me Ben Ten, which delights 'em endlessly.


Students (and Teacher Steve) get psyched up at Sports Day, the entire point of which is to inflict migraine headaches via the incessant enthusiastic thumping of an unholy arsenal of bongos.

How the school is supposed to work

Constructionism, in a nutshell, means that the students teach themselves. That’s an oversimplification, but if you take away any salient point from this dissertation, let it be that. More precisely, Constructionism refers to project-based learning: children in constructionist settings design and create their own projects, and the process of creation often provides greater educational value than the project’s content – in other words, the doctrine is more concerned with how children learn than with what they learn.

According to constructionist thinkers*, each child has his own diverse interests, aptitudes, and learning style, and it’s the role of the school to develop those interests/aptitudes by catering to that unique learning style. In that sense, say constructionists (and I tend to agree), traditional, lecture-based education is ineffective: by treating every student as an identically vapid receptacle for facts, Classic Ed. is stifling their natural love of learning, inhibiting creativity, and not actually teaching them anything of lasting value.

*The leading such scholar is MIT’s Seymour Papert, revered by DSIL’s administration for his sagacity and by me for his epic beard.


When he's not raiding dumpsters, this crackpot is DSIL's patron saint. Just kidding, Seymour: you're an inspiration.


In place of traditional fact-deposit-and-regurgitation systems, Constructionism offers a model called “learning-by-doing,” or “learning-by-making.” The idea is that creating the aforementioned projects helps students foster their aptitudes and learn skills applicable beyond the classroom; and, because they’re ostensibly completing a project of their own choosing, the whole experience is much more positive and engaging to them. (I’m convinced that if all of Phil Goldfarb’s classes dealt with basketball and girls, he would be Hastings High School’s most enthusiastic attendant.) The constructionist framework does not cram academic trivia down students’ throats; instead, kids gain all knowledge organically, and that knowledge has practical application within the project, making learning natural, relevant, and, hopefully, fun.

***

Before every trimester at DSIL, the students congregate to propose project concepts*.

*For some reason the tone of this article resembles a National Geographic documentary voice-over… I imagine “The students congregate…” being read in much the same voice as “Every spring the elephant seals gather on the rocky shoals of the Valdez Peninsula to partake in a mating ritual as old as time.”

The projects range from the quotidian (Psychology) to the whimsical (The Beginning and End of the World) to the demanding (Chemical Engineering) to the completely incomprehensible (Funtrolegology – try finding that course offering in even the most liberal artsy New England college)*. Oftentimes, when students can’t agree on a single project, multiple proposals are shoehorned together: one class is currently attempting to combine Biology and Military History. Funtrolegology is also a portmanteau: as its facilitator, Ram, describes the class’ inception and naming, “Tro because they wanted to do astronomy, Lego because they wanted to play with Legos, fun for obvious reasons, and 'ology' because clearly it’s a legitimate science.”

*One interesting phenomenon is that the projects grow less bizarre and adventurous as the students get older. The kids tend to choose more fanciful ideas in their youth – classes have names like “Miracle World” – but, as they approach teenagedom, they tighten up, and their newly conservative proposals – eg., Economic History – would look right at home in any college curriculum. This, I suspect, is due to increased pressure both from parents and selves to gear up for the looming threat of University; more inventive projects are regarded as too facetious to serve as adequate preparation. I think this concern is pretty specious, for what it's worth.


Students immersed in Thailand's national sport.

Once the students have chosen their projects, each newly-formed group has a massive brain-storming session about what topics fall under their project’s umbrella, what activities they’d like to attempt, what field trips they want to go on, etc. At least in theory, the class plans the entirety of the project itself; the facilitator exists not to dictate a syllabus, but to, yes, facilitate their thinking – to propose directions in which the project might veer. Ultimately, however, the students decide which, if any, of our suggestions are worth heeding; usually my ideas don't pass muster for them.

After the brainstorming has spit its last lightning bolt and the class begins in earnest, the facilitator is charged with ‘guiding the students’ learning.’ To wit: in my class, Business Economics*, my kids decided that, among other things, they wanted to learn about accounting**. The fact that I am woefully unqualified to teach anybody about anything pertaining to business, accounting, or, for that matter, numbers, was almost irrelevant – since it’s not my job to teach them anything, I didn’t have to, say, prepare a lecture on profit margin (or experience the sweaty nightmares that surely would have attended such a duty). Instead, I merely drew up a loose activity: I had them research different measurements of corporations’ economic health, then look up the annual financial reports of various companies and decide, using those prior measurements, whether that company was thriving or in deep shit. Being a facilitator, in short, means being a Creative Activity Designer (except, as you’ll see in Part Two, when it means being an Innocent Bystander). The kids, ideally, are almost entirely self-directed and self-motivated – they dictate what they want to learn, and the facilitator creates unobtrusive methods of leading them toward knowledge.

*What you’re undoubtedly wondering right now is: how did an English and Environmental Studies major who spent four years at Amherst railing against the very existence of economics (let alone the unfortunate gravitation of his friends to that vile discipline like investment banks to a government handout) wind up teaching a Business Economics class? (For that matter, how did a fresh-out-of-college shmoe with zero teaching experience even get this job? That’s maybe the deeper mystery.)

The answer is complicated, but in a word, it was politics that landed me Business Econ. As the New Guy, I had no pre-associations with any of the project proposals, whereas many of the other teachers had certain groups of students they had to work with, or certain subjects they’d taught in the past, etc., and thus had dibs on their pet classes. Also, none of the project proposals really lent themselves to my narrow areas of expertise – try as I might, I couldn’t talk any of the kids into a Fishing Project. Also significant was that Teacher Take (she of the impeccable chicken-foot-stew-eating technique) had already signed on to co-teach Econ. Take was reportedly irascible and unfriendly, and many English speakers dreaded the prospect of co-teaching with her. Confident in my ability to coexist with anybody, I accepted the challenge; and sure enough Take and I have been almost entirely harmonious.


**Or, just as likely, their parents decided that the kids wanted to learn business accounting, because what 12-year-old in his or her right mind would give a shit about asset liquidity and debt ratios and balanced budgets and all that jazz?


On paper it sounds like a wonderfully quixotic place. But, as with most of life's wonderful quixotry, this school comes with a catch: nothing at DSIL ever goes smoothly in practice. Ever.

11 comments:

  1. not sure who all these commenters are or what they're saying or how they found this blog, but, uh, thanks everybody!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Ben Ten,
    As a lowly English 'Instructor', working for a national language school in Thailand I found your blog facinating and entertaining. Not least because I am teaching two sibling students who are currently on holiday from your constructionist emporium.
    I realised they would be a challenge from the moment they walked into my 'school' as they were certainly head-and-shoulders above their local contemporaries and now I know why...
    With your insightful piece, I shall be able to adopt a more contructionist approach. Thank you.
    Now I shall try to find 'Part 2' of your treatise :-) Ajarn Martin

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi, I am considering teaching at DSIL and would like to know more about your experience. Kindly email me at cab372@cornell.edu if you would be interested in discussing this with me. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete