The Future Of Education Is Unstructured Learning, And Here’s Why

One of the primary goals of education is to not only teach students valuable information but help lay the groundwork to succeed in life. There is one problem though…life is messy. There is no guaranteed path towards success in the real world which is a hard lesson to learn and one that usually only comes when failure is met.

In the face of this fact, how can educators attempt to mirror what the real world is like the inside of their classroom? A potential answer to this dilemma might be found in the rise of unstructured learning. Michael Simkins in his book, Increasing Student Learning Through Multimedia Projects, showcases the benefits that unstructured learning, in the context of multimedia projects which fantastic opportunities for unstructured learning, helps create these important “real-world connections.”

What is Unstructured Learning?

Unstructured learning is a shift away from the traditional classroom setting (heavily guided lessons, strict procedures, etc.) and into a dynamic, changing, and completely student-led method of learning. It is important to remember that unstructured learning can be applied to a class as a whole or on a smaller scale with specific activities.

This unconventional approach in the classroom parallels an already popular method of child-rearing centered around unstructured play which has shown to “promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain […] and enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content” as stated by Michael Yogman in his study The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children

The key takeaway from the research done on unstructured play is how pivotal it is regarding the process of learning which is mirrored in unstructured learning as an educational approach. Its applicability and benefits do not diminish as students grow older. 

What Unstructured Learning Activities Look Like

One of the benefits of unstructured learning is that it can be used at any grade level. In elementary school, it can take the form of:

  •         Using chalk to draw on the sidewalk or chalkboard in response to an open-ended question such as “what did the book we read in class teach you?”
  •         Using blocks (such as Legos) to recreate a shape, object, building, etc. learned about in class
  •         Making a handmade puppet and creating a skit with other classmates

In middle school or high school, unstructured learning can become more complex and target deeper learning targets through activities such as:

  •         Create any type of lesson to teach the class about a certain topic or learning target
  •         Find or create a method of analyzing how well your classmates understand a certain topic or learning target

These activities allow the student to oversee exploring the content and challenges them to think more abstractly and engage in the content differently than being handed a worksheet or taking notes from a PowerPoint presentation. Additionally, unstructured learning is incredibly flexible and allows students to engage with the content on their own individual level which makes the activities naturally scaffolded.  

It is important to remember that structured learning also has a valuable place in the classroom and achieving a balance between the two allows the benefits of both to be utilized by the students.

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