Wednesday, 2 October 2013


When I was in college, my dorm mate and I had a bi-monthly contest. When classes were finished on a Friday afternoon, we would hitchhike in different directions to see who could go out the furthest and still make it back in time for Monday morning classes. As part of this contest, we agreed to bring back some piece of evidence (e.g., often a matchbook) of the furthest place we went. Whoever made it out the furthest was the winner. This hurling ourselves into the unknown called on us to be resourceful in ways that were often new to us. We called these adventures "freeforming."

After the first semester of freeforming, I came up with a new idea on how to consistently get out further than my dorm mate. Near our college was a small airport for private airplanes. On Friday afternoon I would ask a pilot walking out to his plane if it was okay to hitch a ride with him. Nine times out of ten they were glad to have some company. Every other week I was flying in a single engine or twin engine plane across state borders. I would usually spend the full day on Saturday exploring the place where we landed. I went to museums, concerts, libraries, parties, and all kinds of events that were associated with the people I met. These experiences expanded my perceptions and understanding of the world.

On Sunday I would usually try to figure out how to get back to school. Most of the time I made it back for my Monday morning classes, but not always. Freeforming started out as a contest, but finally and simply became a grand adventure. After my first year at college I moved into a house and lost contact with my dorm mate. I've somewhat regretted that I never had the opportunity to tell him how I was getting out so much further than him every other weekend. Nevertheless there were only three rules to freeforming -- leave after last class on Friday, make it back for first class on Monday, and no purchases for transportation.

Years later I traveled Vietnam, China, and Thailand for 30 days with a friend. Our agreement was that we would try to get as far "off the grid" as possible in order to see places not frequently seen by tourists and to dig deep into the cultures of the three countries. The adventure was incredible. We listened to what people told us, often with much language difficulty, and we met people and went to places that are indelibly now a part of who we are.

As I've thought about this freeforming, I've thought that this is also an important metaphor for education and life. Unfortunately in education the destination is frequently known and defined by the teacher and school, and the student tries to learn the "game" to get a good grade. This game ultimately becomes about compliance, and not about discovery and adventure. I know there are certain essentials to a good education, but what if education had few rules (for students and teachers) and actually encouraged everyone to collaborate, communicate, and think creatively and critically in ways that aren't exclusively pre-determined?

It always seems odd to me that a 21st century skill is creative thinking, and schools quickly jump to identify the "performance rubric" for what quality creative thinking looks like. If it's great creative thinking, perhaps it is beyond a rubric. When Picasso helped to invent cubism, there was probably not a rubric at the time that would have accepted cubism as art. If we want to explore the world fully and deeply, to be open to experiences that we cannot predict, to draw on all of our inner resources and resourcefulness, and to potentially create solutions in the world that are original and profound, we need to find a way to loosen the reigns on what we see as education and learning.

Jay Mctighe and Grant Wiggins talk about "enduring understandings" in education that are at a high level of cognition and understanding. Perhaps that is enough. Maybe the work of education is creating the conditions for kids to function in the world like real mathematicians, historians, writers, scientists, artists, etc.. Maybe it's about helping kids to authentically experience the adventure of learning and life, and to help them find their way now and then through freeforming.

I know this is a frightening concept to systems that aspire to high levels of control and accountability, but we do not live in a mechanistic world. We live in a humanistic world that is full of ambiguities and moral choices. Isn't that even more reason to create an education system that encourages all of us to pursue deep and full experiences of different areas of learning and life?

I remember once talking to a high school senior who had just finished an amazing independently developed service learning project that hugely benefitted a community. I asked her what her "walk away" would be from high school as a result of this project experience. She said, "I now know how to identify needs in the world, I know how to develop a project that is based on clear goals, I know how to build a team, and I know how to execute a plan so that it produces positive results. I can go anywhere in the world and do this at any time." When I heard this, I didn't want to tell her what maybe she should have done or to even grade her. I just wanted to cheer her on. She was freeforming, and she was on fire!