This past weekend, I was able to watch the first episode of Dream School – a reality show that follows students who have not succeeded in traditional school as they come back for a second chance at getting a high school education and diploma.  These kids are taught by celebrity educators.  These are people who have been deemed successful in the eyes of the world in their respective fields.  The hope is that the success of these individuals will motivate the unmotivated.

Watching the first episode reminded me of why I started going down the free choice learning (FCL) road.  In the British pilot, well-known historian and documentarian Dr. David Starkey takes on a group of students and has an amazing lesson plan – Bling through the ages.  As a history channel watching geek and lover of most things bling, I thought, AWESOME.  This is going to be a good one.  Well, you judge for yourself – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkrhhlAQgu0.

I think the premise of this show is in indicator of what is happening in our society.  This interesting infographic by the Huffington Post gives us some statistics around the phenomenon or epidemic, depending on your point of view- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/03/sundance-infographic-americas-school_n_4032373.html.  Our schools do not seem to be addressing the learning needs of a large portion of the next generation.  Can lessons from FCL help?  If you guess that I would answer affirmatively, you would be correct.  But I think that the answer, as many answers to life’s hard questions, is not as simple as that.  There is a lot that FCL needs to take into consideration before leaping into a hero-saving mode of formal learning environments.

The biggest issue that FCL has is scalability.  Museums, zoos, and informal learning venues are excellent at accommodating large groups and introducing them to interesting concepts and themes.  But the information that groups get are just morsels or amuse-bouches of knowledge.  The exhibits titillate, provoke, and stimulate the mind, but there is little research that demonstrates the long-term acquisition of larger concepts or building of sequential knowledge.  There is a much needed socio-cultural place for FCL environments, but until we can hold learners for a long period of time and move them from point A to point D, formal learning environments will still be the environment that fosters this type of learning.

The next biggest issue that FCL environments have is assessing the learner.  There are so many stimuli and learners arrive with many preconceived ideas and misconceptions, it is difficult to truly assess what the individual is actually learning in a FCL environment.  The best we can do as social scientists is to see how learning is occurring and take a snapshot of the learner at that time and space.  This is not to say that formal environments really know how to do this well.  On the contrary.  It is just that the formal environments have more years of trying to do it.

The final big hurdle is the culture.  Learning and motivation are culturally rooted.  And whether FCL environments want to admit or not, they are cultural institutions imparting a certain way of looking at the world.  Art museums, aquariums, and science centers all impart a certain perspective and view.  The problem doesn’t come with that view – it comes with not acknowledging that they hold that view.  Art museums deem what is beautiful.  Aquariums deem what is worth seeing of the ocean.  And science centers show a western perspective of science.  But they do not hold the corner on what is beautiful, worthy, or scientific.  These institutions help us narrow down from a vast field into digestible facts, but in the narrowing down comes a belief that their visitors will only need to deem that beautiful, worthy, or scientific. They sometimes forget that there is a large world of “other” available for their visitors and from which their visitors come.  It is in remembering this and embracing it when crosses their thresholds which make the FCL environment transcend the cultural institution to a true place of learning.  Yet, as I write this, I know it is a difficult task to accomplish – difficult but not impossible.  Again, this is not something that the formal environment has conquered in the least.

These are some of the biggest challenges I see FCL environments facing and why they cannot be the panacea for our ailing educational system.  But I definitely think they have their place in learning, something that formal educators are really beginning to embrace.  What about you?  Do you agree with these areas or do you think I am selling FCL short?