This summer I had the opportunity to enjoy a two-week cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltics. While in Russia, we did a tour which included two guided days in St. Petersburg and one very long train ride and guided visit Moscow. It was a lovely tour and seeing the Red Square is one of the highlights of my travels. However, for those three days we spent all of our time with the 13 others in our group and our tour director. We traveled everywhere in a pack and we saw things in the order our guide determined. Both the St. Petersburg and Moscow guides were very knowledgeable. They did a great job sharing their best impressions of Russia with us visitors. But what we saw and learned was filtered entirely through their lens.
After leaving Russia our tour stopped in three small Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We had pre-booked short tours in the both Estonia and Latvia. So after three days traveling in a pack through Russia, we again got on a bus and followed our guide through the small towns of Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia.
Both cities were charming, but I have to confess. At this point, after five days of being herded through cities, following the outstretched arm of the tour guide as he or she pointed out some interesting feature of the town, I was less than impressed. (Pause to note, I am aware that stating I was unimpressed in the same blog as I am talking about touring Europe, seems ungrateful, but bear with me…I’m almost to my point.)
The third Baltic country we were set to visit was the town of Klaipeda, Lithuania. We were scheduled for a day at the beach and were very much looking forward to a break from the “following the tour guide” scenario. So imagine our disappointment when the rain cancelled our excursion and we were given the option of a guided tour. We opted to get our money back and just explore on our own. That was the best decision ever.
Klaipeda, similar to many small European towns, is filled with interesting statues that all come with their own stories. In fact, many of those were pointed out to us by the tour guides over the previous five days. Klaipeda took a different approach. At the tourist information office we were handed a map with the locations of over 30 statues. On the back was a description of each one. Off we went on our self-guided, self-paced adventure.
We whispered a wish in the ear of a little mouse with promises that he would make them come true. We pet the tail of the cat while making a wish.
We celebrated finding the mermaid as she was hiding down a flight of stairs and quite difficult to find. (Check out a great description of some of the statues here). We had a lot of fun exploring the city as we used the map to go from statue to statue. Sometimes we had to backtrack and our hunger at mid-day led us to decide to skip some of the more outlying statues, but we saw quite a few of them.
After lunch we ran into an Australian family from our tour in Russia. They asked us what we thought of the town. They found it quite boring, with nothing really to see. Their impression of the town was quite different from ours because, it turns out, they didn’t get the statue map. They also spent time wandering around the town, but with no guidance or information, the things they were seeing did not make a big impression on them. It was that moment when the lessons in learning really crystallized for me.
Imagine for a moment that my touring experiences were instead classroom experiences. The first five days were teacher led instruction. The teacher held the key to all the information we were going to get and determined the order in which we were going to get it. We learned together as a whole class, with little to no time for individuals to stop and explore things that were interesting to them. If one person stopped, they would hold up the whole group, and we had a timeline to follow. Sound familiar?
Imagine again, school is instead like the experience our friends from Australia had in Klaipeda. They were dropped in the small town, given no direction, and told to go see and learn things. Because they did not find the statue map that we found, their experience was in stark contrast to the fun-filled day of exploring that we did.
Neither end of that spectrum is ideal for learning. Day after day of teacher led, direct-instruction leaves students feeling that something is missing. It does not allow for the individual student to explore things that really peak their interest. Or allow the student to take time to review material until they truly understand it. However, simply dropping students in front of a computer with no direction, expecting that Google can give them what they need, is no better for true student learning. Much as my Australian friends missed the charm of Klaipeda, students are apt to miss the lesson if given no direction or support.
I have heard people comment that technology is taking the place of the teacher. But I would argue that teachers are more important than ever. In a time where students can access information at the touch of a button, it is vital that teachers facilitate the learning experience, guiding students on their learning journey. Teachers need to provide just enough information to lead students in the right direction, but allow enough freedom to explore at their own pace. A good lesson acts much as that map we used in Klaipeda. It provides points of interest, gives just enough information to ensure students are not wandering aimlessly, but allows the freedom and flexibility to choose the direction and pace of learning.
Not sure where to start in developing this type of lesson? It can be done without technology, but one form of this type of lesson has garnered much interest lately. The Hyperdoc, a term coined by Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton and Sarah Landis, acts similarly to the map we had while exploring Klaipeda. It provides students a guide for their learning experience, but it hands the key to unlocking the learning over to the students. Make sure you check out the work they are doing and some amazing templates created by other educators!
The next time you begin to plan a unit, I hope you will consider
my lessons in learning from Lithuiania.