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Unschool

By Paul Magnuson | Published: December 2, 2019

Between 1988 and 2010, I spent 15 summers in various roles with Concordia Language Villages. They were some great summers. It turns out they also molded me into the educator I am now.

Author Paul Magnuson models
adults having fun in another language
with Duo, mascot of the DuoLingo
language teaching app. 

Two specific memories stand out. While observing an activity at Waldsee, the German Language Village, two young counselors were having so much fun practicing a short theatrical script they had more or less forgotten the villagers in their activity. But the villagers were fascinated. Here were two adults they adored, just being themselves, having the time of their lives. In German. The villagers eventually asked to be involved and the counselors welcomed them into their fun, into their learning. The motivation to be involved was palpable and I feel it whenever I picture this scene.

Years later, while in graduate school, I prepared a Concordia Language Villages curriculum for an English immersion program outside of Milan, Italy. Instead of a traditional curriculum based on grammar goals (She goes, she went, she would have gone!) or on function goals (Can you order in a restaurant? Can you politely state your opinion?), I focused on creating the conditions in which English use would be natural, motivated, and connected with real emotion. Some of my colleagues at the University of Minnesota told me it wasn’t a curriculum. That was tough feedback to hear as a student of second language pedagogy. But maybe they were right. With 15 years of perspective I can say: I think it was better than a curriculum.

The two big takeaways for learning:

  1. Have more than one adult in a learning group, functioning as people first, teachers second; and
  2. Create the culture in which learning can flourish, filling the learning space with trust and motivation, letting go of knowing exactly what will be taught in favor of what students want or need to learn in a given moment.

To be provocative, you might paraphrase the two takeaways like this:

  1. Be un-teachers, in an
  2. Un-curriculum.
A table covered in images of rooms and furniture, with students' hands working among them.
Edge students engrossed in a project, 
creating an environment where learning
happens organically.

I’ve since tried to recreate un-teachers and un-curriculum in more than a few settings here at my home, a Swiss boarding school in the mountains above Geneva. I experimented first at the class level with self-organized world language classes and with DIY Language, where students created their own language as an introduction to linguistics. I tried again at the program level by creating a middle school marked by daily large group meetings, paired teachers, and unstructured time spent with students and adults just hanging out together. While nobody drew the parallel here at my school, many in this blog’s audience will recognize the ecosystem of the Language Villages. It’s all about setting the conditions for the learning that pops up, in real time, as a group of learners of all ages.

I’m now in the first stages of creating a program within a program, called edge, in which we are pushing the idea of student self-regulation as far as possible. Once again there is not a curriculum to cover, but rather an environment to create. We trust that the learning will be worthwhile. Students create the curriculum as they go and adults learn with them. Perhaps I’ll increasingly find myself trying to get the attention of two students who are passionately working together, oblivious that I would like to be part of their learning, just like those Waldsee villagers I watched long ago.

What comes easily in summer school and summer camp turns out to be a hard sell in school. All sorts of expectations and traditions get in the way, undermining choice, interest, and the biggest driver of learning, motivation. But we are making progress with our new program, edge. A parent wrote recently:

“The more details I hear about the program, the more I find myself in agreement that it’s the right way forward ... “

Summer programming understood that long ago.

About the Author

Paul Magnuson supports teacher professional development through Leysin American School (LAS) Educational Research. In addition to creating and guiding unique educational programming, Paul and his colleagues consult in the area of innovative teaching & learning. The research center also welcomes educator groups to LAS. In 2019–2020 over 20 visiting scholars, from Brazil, France, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the US, will live and work shoulder-to-shoulder with LAS teachers. The edge program is the latest outcome of international collaboration.

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