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Productive deviations: managing the tensions of interest-driven learning in formal education

1.3 Learning, knowledge and agency
Paper in a Symposium (Symp)
10:30 AM, Vendredi 1 Sep 2017 (30 minutes)
Fostering interest and interest-driven learning is often raised as a key solution to the motivational issues students and educators face in formal education. While this trust is not misplaced, interest-driven learning is, however, a troublesome object for the activity system of formal education (e.g., Anderhag et al., 2016). A central characteristic of interest-driven learning, its potential to lead the learner to new and sometimes unexpected directions. In a system that disincentives any excursions this feature creates potential tension between the students’ interests and the designed learning pathway of the curriculum. This study focuses on cases where this tension is successfully managed. The data for the study comes from an ethnographic data corpus of seven different FUSE Studios during 2014-2015 in a large midwestern school district in the Unites States. FUSE is an alternative learning infrastructure (e.g., Stevens et al., 2016) where students solve series of STEAM topic challenges that they have chosen to work on as part of their normal school day. While interest-driven learning takes place also within the challenge structure of FUSE, this study will focus on cases where students follow (and are allowed to follow) their emerging interests beyond the FUSE design and what students learn in the process of doing so. Building on socio-cultural and activity theory perspectives (e.g., Engeström, 2009), we conceptualize these excursions as productive deviations, and argue that they represent pivotal cases on managing the tension between students interests-in-motion and the formal learning structure. Our interactional analysis (e.g., Jordan & Henderson, 1995) has thus far uncovered several cases of productive deviations. Our findings show that the deviations dominantly focused on creating new artifacts, like computer games, 3D printed finger skateboard ramps or emoji pillows. This creation process required solving relatively complex design or production problems on the part of the students. Furthermore, the students also brought new tools and resources to FUSE to help in the process, and step-by-step learned to use them. In all, we believe that the concept of productive deviations, and our analysis of the learning that takes place during them, importantly highlights how interest-driven learning can successfully live with formal education and the agency the students in creating these learning opportunities. 
Northwestern University
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