Setting Learning Free

Here at Gradeable, our credo is simple: “Smarter, faster feedback.” We care a lot about education. In fact, teachers and students are the very reason for our existence. Our mission is to make their lives better so they can do more of what they love: Teaching and learning.

A few posts ago, we wrote about Setting Information Free. This week, I want to advocate for setting learning free. The more we expect learning activities to conform to the time and space limitations of a building and facilities schedule, the more learning is restricted. But sometimes, we have to work with what we’ve got, right? When we can’t change the whole system, how can we make it better? How can we maximize the time we have? Here’s one way: Smarter, faster feedback.

Let me back up a little bit. I recently had a long conversation with Greg Bowe, a writing teacher for over 30 years, with a background in linguistics and composition who currently works as a public high school writing teacher in Miami. He’s an amazing educator, and during his seven year tenure (1998 to 2005) as the director of a large, urban, state university’s undergraduate writing program, he turned it into one of the most successful writing programs in the whole state of Florida.

He did it by fundamentally re-imagining the role of time, using a strategy sometimes referred to as Learning Circles. Countless permutations of the learning circle are used in business, healthcare, and creative design, and the version represented in the above Wikipedia link is just one of them. Greg didn’t invent this model. He innovated with it. And, in the process, he set learning free.

By adapting the circles as the central method of learning in the Undergraduate Writing Program, he placed students’ needs at the front and center. Everything else was forced to fall in line behind that. Instead of superficially meeting with students in alecture-based environment where teachers stood and delivered content, writing instructors on Greg’s teaching team became coaches and facilitators. Each instructor met with twenty-five students in small groups of five students, in depth, for an hour each week.

Before making this switch, instructors spent nearly two-thirds of their time grading papers outside of class, in the absence of the student. Now, instead of grading hundreds of papers in a last-minute caffeine-fueled scramble, instructors spent more time than they ever had before sitting next to students as they wrote, engaging them in small-group dialogue, and providing them with individualized feedback in real-time. Remember our credo? Smarter faster, feedback.Greg Bowe and his teaching team were living and breathing this credo.

Students, in turn, became experimenters and peer coaches. They spent the bulk of their time actually writing, and they were given autonomy to research and write about topics that mattered to them in their lives. They looked at each others work. They helped each other. They learned how to teach other. And, as Frank Oppenhiemer once said, “The best way to learn is to teach.” Scientists call this the “protégé effect,” because “Students enlisted to tutor others … work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively.” Sound familiar? Say it with me: Smarter faster, feedback.

Needless to say, calling Greg a smart, talented teacher is a huge understatement. He was, and is, an innovator. But here’s the rub: even though his team helped over 6,000 students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds successfully learn how to write, to really write, his program was ultimately phased out. You see, all of this structural and pedagogical re-design required Greg and his team to abandon the traditional classroom. Lectures weren’t being supplemented. They disappeared. We don’t have to do an in-depth analysis here to understand that this new format had both scheduling and financial ripple effects across much of the university.

There is good news here. A silver lining. Greg is now a high school teacher in Florida, applying his innovative teaching ideas to help students get ready before they get to college. He is also taking what he’s learned to build an online literacy learning and coaching tool to help people from all walks of life learn to read and write. The project is called It’s Only English, and it is in line with the work of organizations like the Algebra Project, working to make high quality curriculum available online to traditionally underserved students.

The practices that Greg adapted, like the Learning Circles, make an easy transition to the online environment, and are poised to impact even more people around the world. Imagine how powerful it would be to help millions by having smarter feedback, faster? Join us and join Greg in setting learning free.

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