Constructing Modern Knowledge - A Learner's Experience

The Year 5 teaching team of Kelly Watson, Andrew McKie and James Colbert have spent their mid-year break on a study tour of the United States. James Colbert reflects on one part of their tour.

How can I explain Constructing Modern Knowledge? It’s probably best summed up as a place we aspire our classroom to be like. Learners exploring new things, being curious, challenging taken for granted understandings, communicating thoughts and generating new ideas.

Dr Gary Stager, co-founder of Constructing Modern Knowledge kicked things off when he said “this conference is about becoming a learner not a teacher, put on your learner hat. Be selfish and construct meaning that will influence your practice.” To be honest it was not as easy as it sounded! Being in charge of my own learning was a challenge and I felt lost and uneasy. No doubt this is exactly what students in the classroom feel on a daily basis. It was interesting to be in this position. Many insecurities from my own personal schooling came flooding back. What if I don’t do the right thing? How will I be judged?

Constructing Modern Knowledge encourages participants to complete a personal or collaborative project that they have an interest in or feel passionate about. Sitting in the audience while others around me shared what they would like to do, I found myself sitting silent; unsure and confused. What do I want to learn about? It got me thinking, if I was a student in my class, and the teacher asked me what I wanted to learn about, what would I say? 

During his opening speech to the group, Gary mentioned trust. He made mention that in his experience of running this institute, we needed to trust the system. He was right! Being a very inclusive environment I found a project that I felt comfortable working on. The groups were completely "opt in", if you wanted to be involved you could be. If you wanted to change projects you could. If we wanted to work alone we could, if we wanted to get up and go for a walk we could. It was set up for learning, a place where the learners felt comfortable, safe, non judgmental and engaged. Imagine what that would be like for the students in the classroom?

To inspire us further on our learning projects, the institute had a variety of guest speakers, all leaders in their particular fields. People like Neil Gershenfeld, Alfie Kohn, Brian Silverman, Eric Rosenbaum, Debbie Mierer and Ayah Bdeir inspired the group with relevant commentary on how we could shape and mould the students we work with. As a learner I felt empowered, engaged and relevant. These mentors provided thought provoking discussion on the state of education, not only in the USA, but also globally. Linking this to the discussion we were having with Gary, it made me rethink and have thoughts about how I can reshape and invigorate my teaching practice. It's not all about the content I teach or the testing we have to conduct, it's also about the meaningful learning experiences we provide our students. 

So how do these experiences impact classroom practice? Sometimes it's easier said than done. However being at Constructing Modern Knowledge gave me insight and time to reflect on what it's like to be a learner in the 21st-century. The things we are asking our students to do and the ways we would like them to act and behave as learners is vastly different to my own educational experience. Being able to solve problems and collaborate as a group, look for alternatives, make decisions and developing a sense of agency is going to hold them in good stead. If I could have my time again, this is the sort of education I would like to have had. I would like to have had agency over my learning rather than have the teacher ‘pour’ the knowledge in. I think it's exciting to be a student in 2017, I wonder what the students think about the education they are living in 2017? Maybe that conversation should be a priority for educators as we move forward.