How do we evaluate and validate the informal, self-directed learning that happens outside of school?

Meredith Stewart

Perhaps a place to start would be to ask what are the ways in which we might learn about learn about students' self-directed learning. I asked my students what they were learning about outside of school on a quiz recently. Their responses are posted under the discussion tab. I've also found that I'm getting a reputation as the "techy" teacher, and students who have side technology projects they are working on will show them to me. Ideas about ways we can discover/encourage students to share their out of school learning?

I'm intrigued by the notion of evaluating students' self-directed learning. Maybe that idea has just been hopelessly tainted for me because as soon as I hear it words like grading and assessment quickly follow. It seems like student-directed, outside of school learning is one of the few spaces safe from evaluation. Can we re-envision what evaluation might look like to insure it's not synonymous with joy-killing?

It seems most students (and people in general) choose to learn something because they can identify a skill set or some bit of knowledge that they see as useful or desirable. Could we somehow cash in on that, so to speak? Perhaps we could help them identify the goals they would like to reach and then help them come up with plans to achieve them. That way they can work with us to evaluate those steps as they work toward their goals. No matter what, I think that allowing them to see the personal value in the the things they learn and encouraging self-reflection and introspection is key to that process.

I get worried when we talk about evaluating and validating informal learning - and I'm not convinced 'informal' is the best label for the wide range of out of school learning. My gut feeling is there is something about recognising and valuing which does not need to take us into the need to evaluate - and then, perhaps accredit.

We all do a lot of 'learning in the wild'. I think of the apiarist in Stephen Brookfield's 1983 classic, or the description of the family gathering that opens Griff Foley's 1999 analysis of informal learning. Some of that learning is directed and containable, but much of it is odds and ends of information gathering or information assimilation which does not form part of any learning programme (however defined) but sits in some kind of cognitive space from which it can be hauled out when needed. Sometimes such oddments come together into a learning experience and sometimes nothing comes of them but they may come to mind in a quiz or similar situation.

Maybe there is some value in encouraging the use of some form or journalling - not too rigorous please - to reflect on the bits and pieces of learning we engage in - but too much and we almost begin to restrict our learning rather than permitting the broad range of insights that comes out of 'learning on the go'.

How will the learning my kids do outside of school in the process of pursuing their passions a) be shared and, b) be valued? I keep wondering if they (or their kids at least) will be evaluated more on a transparent learning portfolio that values traditional, less relevant school work less and the personal change-the-world type of stuff more. And will they need a "credential" to somehow justify that work, or will it be a credential in and of itself? Does that make sense?

Much of what we learn in school is relevant in the big picture, just not always relevant to kids at that stage in their lives. Learning how to read and write, learning the great texts that tie our culture together, learning how the world around us works (both in science and math), these things are important. I think we need to start using what students are doing outside of school as a starting point, a connecting point. Hopefully by the end of the year, the kid who likes skating will still like skating, but will "like" other things as well and see how the other things are tied in with what he or she already likes.

As for credentials, they need to document learning somehow. To formally place that learning in writing (or in some other form) isn't a bad thing. It helps the students to realize what they have learned and how it has changed their awareness of their world. I think the credentialing in the terms of education isn't in the person but the learning. This is especially true with outside learning. How can student bring their current knowledge into the classroom then use new knowledge to transform it?

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