A Reflection on Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?”

Alan November welcomes the reader the to the Digital Learning Farm by quoting Daniel Pink‘s book Drive.  Pink points out that predictors of high quality work are when individuals experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  November then wonders how well our traditional education model allows for these three elements.  Essentially in my mind it doesn’t.  November points out that the idea of purpose is one of the most important predictors of quality work, and yet the traditional education model offers no real purpose for its learners.  For me it is crystal clear why Pink’s three indicators are useful in providing meaningful learning,  and what November is saying about them in terms of his goals that drive the Digital Learning Farm model.  To make myself clear it is necessary to share how my teacher brain was shaped early on in my life.

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Photo Credit: Mike Roach Jr. via Compfight cc

Before I became a classroom teacher, and actually quite awhile before I got around to even going to University, I worked as, for lack of a better term, an outdoor educator.  What this means is that I was employed by an organization called the Camp Chief Hector YMCA, which is located just west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  In the fall, winter, and spring seasons we ran experiential education programs for schools in the region, and in summer I ran month long adventure leadership programs for 15-16 year olds.  There is an amazing amount of learning that goes on in a centre like this, and I believe it has everything to do with the fact all the programs, regardless of whether it was a curriculum based program such as the IEE‘s Sunship Earth, or a month long Outward Bound style backcountry adventure, they were designed around motivating participants intrinsically.

In experiential learning environments, learners are given direct instruction on certain skills they will need to be able to participate as the program becomes more complex.  They are given time to practice and become comfortable with their new knowledge and skills (mastery).   Learners who return again  each year are given even more opportunity to develop these skills as they progress through various programs. It is also quite clear (most of the time) that the skills they are learning are going to serve a very clear purpose very soon.  Meaning when the van drops them off 90 km from nowhere, those who were not able to internalize the purpose of mastering the necessary skills and knowledge will soon suffer the discomforts of the backcountry, or the wrath of their peers.

Photo Credit: zkruz via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zkruz via Compfight cc

As the programs move forward learners are put into situations where they must take the initiative to use the new skills and knowledge to solve a real world problem.  They may need to lead their peers for a day through the mountains using their map and compass skills, or run a belay station to get their group down a glacier’s headwall.  The sense of accomplishment from being successful, or from experiencing several failures that eventually lead to an accomplishment, ultimately gives that learner a true sense of autonomy;  the sense they can master the world they live in.

To me this is learning.

So as I begin to read Alan November, I see his Digital Learning Farm as the “outdoor adventure for the classroom”.  It’s a paradigm shift for the education establishment.  It’s a shift for both students and teachers.  November talks about shifting control of the learning.  I know from experience trying to give a task to students that involves some initiative and problem solving can be painful for all involved.  This is particularly true of students who expect you to just hand everything out so that they can fill it in and give it back.  The Digital Learning Farm model will take careful scaffolding to bring learners to a place where they can begin to have the skills to take on their own learning journey.  Unfortunately a lot of our current paradigm has disabled students.  They just want to be taught.  This is not their  fault.  It’s what they are used to.  The ideas of the Digital Learning Farm could change that.

For me I don’t need to be convinced of the possibilities of the Digital Learning Farm.  I’ve seen the ideas in a different context work effectively time and again.  I also know that this kind of learning model cannot be taken on by one individual teacher.  It has to be an initiative from educational leaders in schools to shift their learning environments to a place where teachers do not hold all the keys to the learning.  A place where it is ok to lead your learners into the woods, and leave them to figure out how to get back.   A place where students can see the purpose in their tasks, master relevant skills, and feel the sense of autonomy that comes with working through a problem that leads to useful and real outcomes.