I have been reading and listening to Gary Stager for several years now, and much of what he says resonates with where I hope education in particular, and approaches to learning in general, are heading. In A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words – Constructing Modern Knowledge, Gary provides some practical guidelines that help develop a learner-centered approach and space.
Gary Stager opens by stating that he has “seen curriculum used as a weapon and as a security blanket. Curriculum is often arbitrary, created far away from the students subjected to it”. The word subjected jumped out at me – not only is this something that is done to learners, but it also is unpleasant on all levels. He goes on to say that “the richest learning experiences and greatest demonstrations of student mastery have emerged from situations where maximum flexibility is exercised”, and then fleshes out some guidelines around how to write prompts that make it less us, and more them.
With the following four variables in place, a learner can exceed expectations.
- A good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
- Appropriate materials
- Sufficient time
- Supportive culture, including a range of expertise
The genius of this approach is that it is self-evident. If you lack one of the four elements, it is obvious what needs to be done.
….The same is true for prompt setting. The best prompts emerge from a learner’s curiosity, experience, discovery, wonder, challenge, or dilemma. However, all too often teachers design prompts for student inquiry or projects.
If you absolutely must design a prompt for students, here are three tips you should follow.
- Brevity. The best prompts fit on a Post-It! Note. They are clear, concise, and self-evident.
- Ambiguity. The learner should be free to satisfy the prompt in their own voice, perhaps even employing strategies you never imagined.
- Immunity to assessment. The best projects push up against the persistence of reality. What is a B+ poem or musical composition? How does an engineering project earn an 87? Most mindful work succeeds or fails. Students will want to do the best job possible when they care about their work and know that you put them ahead of a grade. If students are collaborating and regularly engaged in peer review or editing, then the judgment of an adult is really unnecessary. Worst of all, it is coercive and often punitive.
Good prompts do not burden a learner, but set them free. Add thematic units, interdisciplinary projects, and a classroom well equipped with whimsy, objects-to-think-with, and comfort, and you set the stage for authentic student achievement.
I would say that there are two key things to bear in mind with this approach. The first is that teachers / facilitators need to trust the learners – they can do it – and they need to trust themselves to be comfortable with the long silences, the what appears to be chaotic interactions which are in fact collaboration and creativity, and to be able to mentor students when the need it, in spite of not planned a session to the nth degree!
Would be great to hear from anyone who uses this approach, or has been involved as a participant in a session where the facilitator has used such an approach. How was it? What happened? Would you do anything differently next time? Any tips?