A Learning Model with No Tests, Teachers, or Curriculum Standards Required

9/21/2015 12:10:00 AM

Hear more from Lisa Nielsen and dozens of other edtech experts at Tech & Learning Live @ NY on October 23.

Adult life is all about making choices, learning from them, and prioritizing competing demands for our time. A healthy educational environment must allow students to experience such opportunities and challenges. To do this, children must be able to make their own decisions and pursue their own passions. This creates the opportunity for them to flourish to their full potential if they have a supportive, respectful and loving culture. Knowing what they want to learn or do, and then following through to learn it or achieve it, is a core skill for learning.


There is an education model that reflects this philosophy. It is called Agile Learning.  The education model uses a tree as a metaphor to illustrate the model.  

Here are the four parts of the model:

1. The Soil: Trust

Who do we trust to direct a child’s learning?

Children are not empty vessels who don’t know what’s good for them. Students don’t need  someone else needs to decide what they should learn, how they should learn it, and then tell them whether they’ve learned it well enough. When that happens, that “someone else” is usually very far from the actual child. It could be testing companies driven by profit or politicians who have no teaching experience. The problem is that it is not the person who has to live with the consequences of these choices -- the child.

When making a choice to trust a child to direct their learning, children immediately start learning they can trust themselves. This is important for many reasons.

Why Trust?

  • You can’t learn to make good decisions if you’re never allowed to make your own decisions.
  • Children learn better when they’re doing things they’re interested in.
  • Forcing kids to do things compromises their trust in you (as well as in themselves) and establishes an adversarial relationship.
  • The best way to learn to trust yourself, if by being granted the gift of trust …
  • Committing to trust your children creates powerful mutual respect and mutual trust.
  • Kids still choose, you’ve just narrowed their choices to: “Do what you’re told” or “Get in trouble.”  Some discover they have another option: “Agree to to what I’m told, then try to get away with doing something else.” (Lie about it.) Is that the kind of decision making you want them to spend their childhood practicing?
  • By practicing self-direction, children learn greater responsibility. Complete responsibility.
  • You don’t learn to drive by being told or reading books about it, you have to actually get in the driver’s seat.
  • Following their authentic interests makes them better attuned to their passions and hones their ability to listen for their deeper purpose.

2. Roots / Assumptions

The tree has four main roots that are the underlying assumptions the educational model. They are the foundation upon which everything else is built.

  1. Learning: Learning is natural. It's happening all the time
  2. Self-Direction: Children are people. People learn best by making their own decisions.
  3. Experience: People learn more from their culture and environment than from the content they are taught. The medium is the message.
  4. Success: Accomplishment is achieved through cycles of intention, creation, reflection and sharing.

3. Branches / Principles

Branches depict the guiding principles used to translate theory into practice and ideals into action.

  • Infinite Play: Play infinitely, grow infinitely.. Play is one of the most powerful paths to growth. The concept of infinite play reminds us that games aren’t about winning; changing rules and boundaries is part of playing, letting players constantly expand the game of outrageous personal growth to incorporate new players and new frontiers.
  • Be Agile: Make tools and practices flexible, adaptable, easy to change… or change back again. Too much change all at once can be disorienting -- try gentle changes over multiple iterations to see what’s working.
  • Amplify Agency: Ensure tools support personal choice and freedom as well as responsibility for those choices. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in designing and upgrading the structures which guide them.
  • Culture Creation: Acknowledge and use the water you’re swimming in. We shape culture; culture shapes us. A powerful, positive culture is the strongest, most pervasive support structure a learning community can have.  Develop collective mastery rather than restrictive rule-making. Intentional culture building supports intentionality in other domains as well.
  • Visible Feedback: Make choices, patterns, and outcomes visible to participants so they can tune their future behavior accordingly. Make the implicit explicit and expand transparency. These practices empower and build trust among community members.
  • Facilitate: Clarify, simplify, and connect. Don’t introduce unnecessary complexity. Hold coherence for personal growth in an empowered cultural context. Connect kids to the larger social capital of their local and online community as they seek learning resources. Combine principles and intentions into a single tool or practice, instead of trying to maintain more of them.
  • Support: Provide maximum support with minimal interference. As adults, we often need support reaching our goals and fulfilling our intentions; so do children. Create supportive structures, practices, culture, and environments. Remember that support is not direction -- it does not mean making their decisions for young people or intervening and managing their processes. Support that takes up too much space becomes counterproductive.
  • Respect each other’s time and space: Hold no unnecessary meetings. Keep all meetings tight, productive and participatory. Honor commitments, as well as scheduled start and end times for happenings. Check-in before creating work for someone else. Be thoughtful about taking up shared space.
  • Relationship: Be real. Be accepting. Respect differences. Authentic relationship is the basis of partnership, communication, collaboration, and trust between students and staff. Support self-expression, self-knowledge and self-acceptance, letting the experience of nurturing relationship teach the power of interrelatedness and community.
  • Full-spectrum Fluency: Embrace multiple intelligences, modes of expression, and learning styles. Nurture multiple literacies. A functional education for today’s world needs to focus on more than just “book-learning” textual, numerical, analytical, or memorization skills. Social, relational, digital, and a variety of other skill sets are now essential; recognize and develop them as such.
  • Shareable Value: Make value received from learning visible and sharable. Use tracking systems, record measurable progress, generate documentation (blogs, portfolios, images), and teach others.
  • Safe Space-making: Provide an environment of physical, social, and emotional safety. Set and keep critical boundaries. Foster great freedom within an appropriate frame of safety and legality, so that kids’ energy can be freed up to focus on learning instead of protecting themselves.

4. Leaves & Fruit

The leaves are the tools and practices that embody the theory. The tools prove effective in transforming a school culture to a healthier state and empowering students with great clarity, focus and intentionality. Interested in these tools and practices? Stay tuned on the Innovative Educator blog to learn more about the tools.

So what do you think? Is Agile Learning a model you agree with? Is it one you can implement with young people? Why or why not?

Learn more. Join the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NYCAgile.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

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