The InnovationLab: Exploring the Possibility of Self-Directed Learning

They wondered: Why is it that people all over seem so stressed they can't wait till the end of school or work? How come people can't wait until the weekend, or summer, or vacation, or graduation? Why -- in school – does the passion for the "why" of learning never seem anywhere near as important to the powers that be as the "what" (standards!) and the "how" (latest silver bullet to push the standards)? Then they asked: Did it have to be this way?

That simple daisy chain of thoughts -- striking out of the blue -- led to this: a 1910 Victorian house on Third Street in downtown Loveland, Colorado, which looks like no other public school in the U.S., right down to the sign on the front door: "Be you, a quiet revolution."

The InnovationLab
"This is a new way to look at what it might mean when we say the words, 'no child left behind,'" said teacher Monika Hardy, facilitator of the Thompson School District's Innovation Lab.

The lab allows individual learners to learn what they want to learn how they want to learn it. It's part of the Thompson public school district, but it's open to K-12 students regardless of whatever home district they live in, including home-schoolers and unschoolers. Students can enroll in the lab full-time or part time.

While there is no learning agenda or curriculum, the lab has five components:

  1. Conversation with Self [What they're calling 'Detox']...A process of self-reflection prompting a learner back to a natural state of curiosity and self-directed learning.
  2. Shared Spaces [What they're calling 'City as a floor plan']…Students see the entire community as a classroom. They make connections with other people and are encouraged to use all available resources, places, and people in the city to support their learning.
  3. Connections [What they're calling 'Interdependency']...Students choose their mentors, from anyone in the city or virtually, because of shared interests and passions.
  4. Facilitators of Curiosity [What they're calling 'Mentoring alongside']... Students work with mentors who choose to listen without an agenda -- to deliberately not teach -- in order to help students develop their interests and expertise, and realize their goals.
  5. Conversations With Others [What they're calling 'Culture of Trust']… Prototyping a community freed from the need to prove oneself. Coming together to crowdsource what they want to do and who they want to be. It's grounded on a premise that people are good, in order to focus energy on listening.

Visit the 'be you' house and you might just see students working together, helping one another, talking through problems or opportunities. One student is working on teen homelessness. Another is working on roller coaster design. Another, on robotics. Someone else is researching the field of storm-chasers. Another, photojournalism. Yet another is learning Hebrew on the way towards accomplishing his goal of being fluent in four languages by age 20.

Adam Mackie, a graduate student at Colorado State University, has studied the work at the lab and the 'be you' house, and writes: It's "simply defined as a place where students arrive with their own problem or issue in the world that they want to try and solve with the help of an expert mentor."

Networked learning expert and author Thomas Steele-Maley says, "'Be you' dares to look critically at modern education in form and function while also offering working examples of resilient learning ecologies."

In the first year of the lab, students met at Thompson Valley High School. But the group wanted a separate location, a place closer to downtown, to the hub of the city, to better accommodate the goals of recasting learning as a function of apprenticeships, community and daily exploration. A real estate developer listened to their vision and offered the Victorian house they're now in.

Much of the furniture and contents of the house have been donated by members of the community. The walls are decorated with scores of photos and business cards tethered together by string, a visual rendering of the web of connections the students have made locally and globally in pursuit of their learning.

"We are being allowed to listen to our youth, and we are respectfully questioning everything, especially how we spend the hours of our day and who drives it," Hardy said. "This year, Colorado will receive $17.9 million for Race to the Top initiatives. If one takes time to look at the details of the *race*, it's about getting better at taking tests on such things as rationalizing a denominator. The measures we are currently using to determine success, the actions we are currently using to fix the problems, even how we determine which problems are problems, aren't serving us well.

"We don't think of what we do as new or necessarily insightful," Hardy said, "but perhaps the combination is. Perhaps just doing it is."

As a result of requests from people fascinated by how the lab works but unsure how they might replicate it, Hardy, some colleagues, and the lab's students have put together a free eBook, called "Be You." The introduction to the book, which is also available in a slideshare, declares: "We're respectfully calling into question our current (seemingly blind, deaf and mute) allegiance to our system of education based on publicly prescribed learning. This prescribed learning was not crafted with ill intent, but it has undoubtedly sustained a crippling dependency, an addiction, at a global level. Social change can and will happen if we but question the existence of the prescription itself rather than continue our efforts to improve its deliverance."

Chase, 14, has studied math and history in the lab. "It's a free-form thing, there's a lot of freedom," he said. "You can kind of do your own thing just as long as you're doing your work, obviously. It's very interesting because you get to pick your own course, how you want to learn it, and when you do it. It's not being forced upon you by someone else. You can follow your own guidelines and do what you think helps you to learn best."

Another student, Andria, noticed that being around other teens who are passionate about what they are learning and doing is unusual and contagious. "Talking to the kids in the lab about their passions, the things they are interested in, made me want to have what they have that much more, to find that passion. I'm not sure what mine is, but I'm trying to figure that out. I've learned that I want to go for what I want, not for what everyone else wants for me. I feel that if I have that one thing, and that drive, then I'll be able to make a difference."

Whether it's helping a teen discover a passion or deepening an interest they already have, Hardy said connecting kids to information and to people through the web and social networking has made a world of difference. "We see the web as nothing but connections," she said. "How we can make those connections has changed so much in the last few years; I believe this is why we have been able to boldly redefine school. It's this newly amplified access to people and to information that has allowed us to carry out ideas and theories about self-directed learning that have been talked about and desired for hundreds of years."

Towards the end of the lab's "be you, a quiet revolution" book, on page 96, is a short list of their "findings" from the first two years of operation:

  1. Ed/school could be about finding & facilitating the genius in each person.
  2. Self-reflection of process of learning appears to get at #1.
  3. Publicly prescribed curriculum appears to keep most from 1 and 2.

Asked for a definition of "success," Hardy didn't need to pause. "That the lab wouldn't exist. That there's no need for it. That people realize innovation isn't some mecca space we go to, it's in each one of us."

To learn more about the InnovationLab:

Personal Story compiled by Jeff Brazil
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