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Focus on Autonomous Learning Opportunities: One New Thing
By Wade Alley
Students un-motivated? Do they lack drive or a desire to learn? Try something new. Try out the flexible project I have developed for my students called “One New Thing”.
“One New Thing” is simple to implement and demands autonomous learning from your students. This project can be used for a broad range of classes, and I have used it successfully in EFL classes for several years. How does it work? It works by having students explore a theme they want to know more about. For example, a student might want to learn how to ride a bicycle. Once that decision is made, then the student would have to ask what kind of bicycle is best, how much they cost, how they can find one, etc. There are of course any number of problems that go along with the process of procuring and learning to ride a bicycle to be dealt with that can really add to the learning curve. Fortunately the number of problems to be overcome adds to the richness of their story about learning and how that story might be told to others.
Thinking about One New Thing.
Too often in my classes, I see students who seem to lack curiosity about anything. Usually when they are confronted with some kind of information they’ve never heard or question that they can’t answer, students will do one of two things: First they will ask their friends, and if the friend doesn’t know the answer then clearly, the problem has no answer. Or, the bolder students will, after consulting with their friends, might go to wikipedia and look up the information. The bravest of this latter group will consider checking with Google, of course. I have used “One New Thing” several times to help students develop a proximity to what author Steven Johnson would call their “adjacent possible”. In very few words the concept of “One New Thing” give students a bank of new idea starters that they may not have had before. Check out this video.
So, with the the idea that students can either consciously or unconsciously increase their access to adjacent possibilities, I made a plan and called it ( what else?) One New Thing.
This plan is for a semester, but I have done a similar things for two and three times a semester. This plan was also made for an EFL class, though other classes, such as psychology, sociology, language arts, and many others could apply the lessons here. (Standards and objectives will vary by state, teacher, class, level, etc.)
One New Thing
Duration: One semester
Objectives: By the end of this project, students will have experienced something new and have expanded on that experience to the point of being reasonably well versed about the topic of their experience. Without all the education jargon, it means they will be able to do whatever they experience as new with ease later on. ( i.e. from taking a first golf lesson to playing in a tournament, for example)
Language Learning Objectives: Production of language (speaking at the CEFR levels A2-B2+) Reading and writing (levels A2-B2).
Deliverables for Assessment: Frequent updates in the form of blogs, videos, audios or other media. For less advanced students, infographics, poster sessions, or personal demonstrations.
Assessment: I prefer rubrics, but whatever complies with local standards will/should also work. Remember, we are looking for three things 1.) Is it something new. 2.) Does the student’s language ability grow and does the pupil become better or more competent about the topic at hand. And 3.), does the student’s language ability improve when discussing, writing about, or demonstrating the topic? Your assessment will need to include all these things.
Process: Start by taking a survey or by just asking about a student’s recent experiences. Ask them if they have tried anything new lately? You might then consider your plan of action based on what you hear. Nowadays, students aren’t the most active people on the planet. Many will have to be coaxed out of their comfort zone, and one way to do it is through this project. Sometimes, you might have to suggest what trying something new really means. There are little new things, and there are BIG NEW THINGS. Make sure students know that they will be reporting back to the class on a regular basis about their project. This will help you a great deal when you have to discount the student’s suggestion to only work with little new things. I would suggest at least four feedback suggestions with a final production session where the student presents the culmination of their project time.
Little new things might include: changing a diaper, trying a new kind of food, becoming a fan of another football team, etc. While these do take a little effort, they don’t provide enough material for a week of experience, let alone a semester. They also don’t provide the richness of experience that will help them develop their proximity to the adjacent possible. Students will naturally reach for the low-hanging fruit these little new things provide, but do not give in. You could suggest doing those sorts of things as a preliminary exercise that will culminate in the bigger new thing. You could also just cut to the chase and make it happen. I have found that discounting these little notions right at the beginning signals that small thinking is unacceptable. I recommend you do that, too.
So what are the big new things? Big new things are those activities that can have an impact on a student’s life. For example, a former student of mine decided to take mixed martial-arts lessons (much to his parents chagrin, I might add). He wasn’t the most mature student, and he was chubby at the beginning of the school year. Toward the end of the semester, though, I noticed that students had stopped making fun of the boy. He wasn’t chubby anymore. He started turning in homework on time, and his grades had improved. Any martial arts instructor will tell you that mastery of these sports requires discipline, practice, and fitness. My student caught all three elements, with discipline providing the nexus between the dojo and the classroom, and thereby, creating a link to the adjacent possible. Martial arts aren’t the only things that provide discipline, many other sports and hobbies do to, and those other venues may seem a bit more palatable to anxious, hovering parents.
Keeping parents happy and involved. Most of the time, my student’s parents have been supportive of the idea of One New Thing, because frankly, they worry about their children’s lack of movement, their isolation, or their lack of curiosity. Some parents are just delighted that their children have given up the video games, at least for a little while. Keep that in mind as you suggest new things to do. Here’s a list of things I have suggested students try in the past. I am also including what might seem to be reasonable finales to their projects.
Learn an instrument: Most music instrument stores also offer instruction and many provide free-lessons. (I am currently doing the semester-long One New Thing challenge with one of my classes. You can check on my progress here. www.idiomatic.com.mx/drums ) Start with an instrument, finish with a public recital or classroom concert.
Learn to cook: I haven’t had many students who knew how to cook anything that didn’t come in a plastic tray with a plastic cover that had to be poked and put in a microwave. There has been a proliferation of gourmet cooking stores in my city which offer some cooking courses. This might be a good starting point for those wanting to learn, and if not, there’s always YouTube. Start with boiling with an egg, finish with a video cooking show or cook an entire meal for a family or gathering.
Learn to ride a bike: What was a basic form of transportation for me in my youth, has become far less common where I live now (Guadalajara, MX). Depending where you are, this might seem too simple to consider. Anyway, one could start by learning to ride a bike, then discovering the local biking community. For instance, Guadalajara has night rides all over town every Wednesday evening. It’s a great opportunity to experience the town at night safely and without a car.
Learn a sport: In my youth there were two things you just had to know how to do. One was ride a bike, the other was know how to swim. Classes were available at the local public pool and they would go from beginning swimmers (Tadpoles) to advanced (Sharks). Knowing how to swim has (literally) been a life-saver for me. Imagine what it could do for your students! Other sports might include golf, running, etc. Free classes and many organizations exist for just this purpose. Start with a lesson, move up to a tournament or a race.
Pole dancing: I have not tried it, but my students seem to like it and swear that a high-degree of fitness is required. This seems to go for folkloric dance, ballet, acrobatics, gymnastics, jazz, hula, bellydancing, etc. Again, many dance schools offer a free lesson or two to help the student decide what they want learn. Start with a lesson, then move up to a recital or variety show for the class or school.
Basic it DIY skills: I mentioned earlier that riding a bike and swimming were critical skills to have when I was growing up. As I became older I realized there was much more to know. Changing a tire on a car would be an essential skill. Doing home maintenance such as changing a fuse, or fixing a clogged toilet were as essential then as they are today. Knowing how to use basic hand tools will always be a valuable skill, too. Start with changing a fuse and move up to building a bird house.
Big results: There are hundreds of things students could try and succeed at if given the motivation and support to do them. In the six years I have done these activities, I haven’t had any regrets and neither have the students. The mixed-martial artist still practices them. I have had other students continue to play the instrument they chose in my class, and still others have reported their satisfaction of having at least tried something new. I have also had students who haven’t continued their experience, and that’s okay, too. For the most part, my former students remember what it was they worked on and can still tell someone all about it.
You will make mistakes; maybe even fail: I have found the more excited the students are about the thing they are learning, the better their language production will be. Students will show off their successes as much as they can, so let them. Conversely, you will have be very encouraging to get them to show their failures, too. I encourage you as teachers to try One New Thing as well and be brave enough to show your failures. There is a quote attributed to Einstein that goes something like this: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Mistakes are how we learn and help us build another link in that matrix known as the adjacent possible.