"we have a system of education which is modeled on the interest of industrialism, and in the image of it..."
- Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Education Paradigms
Examine the majority of public schools in this country, and you'll see individual classrooms, bell schedules, cohorts... Even the curriculum shows the influence of the industrial age on education.
In many classrooms, curriculum is structured to follow a clear set of standards in a sequential, teacher-determined path, each step mapped out through a series of lessons. These lessons are designed to teach specific skills or content to a group of students in short bursts (usually 45 to 50 minutes). The class period begins with an opening activity, followed in many cases by directed instruction, and ending with student practice and a short assessment to check for understanding. This design is known as a synchronous learning model.
The synchronous model can be very good for a homogeneous class, where all students are operating at the same level, have the same learning styles, come in to the class with the same prior knowledge, and have the same level of engagement. Unfortunately, this does not describe a single classroom I have visited in the past eight years.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach. Called asynchronous learning, this new approach (although it's not really 'new', just new to our current paradigm) allows students to learn the same material, but at different times and in different ways. The asynchronous classroom has all students working independently or in small collaborative groups. Students work at their own pace and complete a set of assignments of their choosing. Teachers provide a wide variety of resources, a collection of assignment choices for each standard covered in a given unit of study, and opportunities for students to interact with each other and the teacher when help is needed. The asynchronous learning model accounts for a wide variety of learning styles and abilities in the heterogeneous classroom.
Can the asynchronous approach enhance creativity in students and encourage them to innovate?
The first thing to understand is that the asynchronous approach alone will not enhance student creativity or learning. In the words of Aaron Sams, "a worksheet will always be a worksheet". Meaning, if you give all students the same set of pre-determined, cookie-cutter assignments, it doesn't matter if they're working synchronously or asynchronously... The outcome will be the same.
What the asynchronous approach does offer, though, is the opportunity to deliver learning experiences that can engage students and help them to develop their creativity. To begin with, the teacher operating within the model must embrace the "guide on the side" mentality when designing student experiences. Direct group instruction will not work in an asynchronous environment. The instruction must be individualized and students must be given choice in how they acquire information and how they present their understanding of material.
The development of creativity and innovative thinking must be a priority of the teacher developing the lesson if it is to be one of the desired outcomes. This development in students does not often happen on its own. It begins with teacher-created opportunities for students to explore personal interests within the framework of course standards, instead of lessons driven by content-specific learning.
Teachers working to develop learning experiences that encourage and nurture creativity and innovation must embrace a few key tenets. First, the learning experiences must be interdisciplinary, drawing on information from across the curricula of various content areas. Disciplines can no longer be separated by bell schedules or classroom walls. Second, the experiences must be collaborative, hands-on problem-solving, using real world problems whenever possible. And third, teachers must empower students to embrace their curiosity and encourage their intrinsic motivation.
While the asynchronous approach is not a silver bullet, it does offer teachers a unique opportunity to offer individualized learning experiences that can develop creativity and innovative thinking in students.
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