Friday, March 2, 2012

A Taste of Autonomy

This is the second in a series of "re-visioned" posts that first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance Blog. Posting them here gives me an opportunity to add photos and/or additional thoughts.

Working in an urban high school has its challenges, and my first “Computer Graphics” class was no exception. The computers were old PCs, and the software a “light” version of a program that had failed to compete with the standard of the graphic design industry. My class contained a mix of special education students, and youths with a reputation for disrupting normal classrooms.

Our computers were never top-of-the-line, but by the time we
got them, they had definitely seen better days.
A former graphic designer myself, I had returned to the classroom with a dream of teaching skills to urban art students that they actually could use to get jobs. But the program would be cancelled if things did not go well this semester.

It was time for an experiment. I spent the summer creating problems of increasing complexity, that these students could read and tackle at their own pace. The students’ first reaction was perplexity. They had never been taught this way before. They weren’t sure it would work.

Privately, I wasn’t sure, either, but I explained that real graphic designers have to think and manage time for themselves, and often have to look up instructions on their own, for ways to do new things with their software. “This is the last whole-group lecture I plan to give you,” I said. “Once we establish some basics, you will move at your own pace.”

One of the locally-infamous troublemakers blurted out, “What if you run out of modules? What if I finish the course before the semester ends?”

“I won’t run out,” I promised, hoping I could keep that promise. “If you finish Computer Graphics I, you can move on to Computer Graphics II.” He looked dubious, but nodded.

Learning to manage one’s own time fruitfully is hard. We had some rough spots. I had to patrol diligently, not only to troubleshoot when someone didn’t understand a direction, but also to ensure no one strayed to websites the school had forbidden.

One of my special education students couldn’t read well enough to follow the instructions in the modules. I made voice recordings for him. His mastery and confidence improved dramatically. Eventually he said, “I think I can do it without the recordings now,” and continued to perform well.

He told me later that seeing the words while listening to me read them helped him, and because he wanted to learn these skills, he finally had a personal reason to read.

He finished all the work I’d designed for Computer Graphics I, three weeks before the end of the semester—before some of the so-called “normal” students. What a proud moment!

One student who started the class did not complete all of Computer Graphics I. She had fairly profound disabilities, but worked conscientiously every day, and fully deserved her passing grade.

Everyone else finished. Most quickly signed up for Computer Graphics II, and word-of-mouth swelled Computer Graphics I to two sections. The program would not be cancelled!

The “troublemaker” who’d spoken up the first day did finish early—by the end of First Quarter. As I had promised, we went on to Computer Graphics II material. His main “trouble” was that he was intelligent, and bored in most of his classes.

It was challenging to produce new modules before he devoured them—but with this student I achieved my “dream goal.” He went on to work in the printing industry.

One more note: The idea of "self-paced learning" is not new, but it is enjoying a revival right now, with the proliferation of distance learning and computer-based learning. Terry Anderson, a Canadian professor and international expert on distance learning, describes it this way

"Self-paced programming maximizes individual freedom. Rather than making the obviously incorrect assumption that all students learn at the same speed, have access and control over their lives to march along with a cohort group of learners or are able, despite divergent life circumstances, to begin and end their study on the same day, self-paced study correctly puts the learner squarely in control.”

IMAGE CREDIT: I took the photo of the elderly computers we had available.