Open Ended Learning in the Summer
One thing that I sometimes forget is that most of my learning has come not from structured classroom space with structured relationships to material and environment, clear learning outcomes, and rigid forms of assessment. Summer time provides the perfect time of year for such open-ended learning. The relentless pressures of teaching and learning are relaxed, the weekly grind of meetings of subsides, and for those of us who do research or teach abroad, the scenery changes allowing for those dislocating moments which are so central to the uncanny experience associated with learning.
For students and faculty summer breaks can be akin to recess or playtime that some education critics see as particularly valuable as an opportunity to develop skill well-suited for real world engagement with the unfamiliar. The challenge for me and our team, is how do we manage the unstructured environment especially when both students and faculty tend to understand learning most frequently within far more formal conditions.
The greatest challenge to fostering informal and unstructured learning is in encouraging students to take full advantage of the unstructured opportunities, in allowing for the unpredictability and inefficiency of unstructured learning, and in designing assessment programs that can evaluate a wide range of possible outcomes.
This summer, we’ve been waiting on a permit to conduct fieldwork and during this time we have had a diverse group of students washing pottery and biding their time with various small projects. Our lack of fieldwork has removed one of the more easily assessed and focused aspects of the project’s educational goals. In its place, I’ve advocated for a series of open ended learning events, which would force the students to engage with their environment (the city of Larnaka) or a set of archaeological artifacts (plow-zone pottery).
There has been some reluctance to let the students just roam free, however. Moreover, there is persistent concern that students wouldn’t “get” an assignment that was required, but at the same time had no goals beyond engagement. In fact, students are as conditioned to expect assignments with distinct, assessable learning goals. This, obviously, is the cause of the most common student question in the classroom: “will this be on the test?”
The summer provides a chance for both faculty and students to shift expectations and to recognize the opportunities for productive learning outside the institutional constraints of regularized university life. These opportunities, like recess or play time in younger children, can cultivate the sense of wonder, observation, and engagement.