Since 1990, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® has developed hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs that embrace the principles of invention education and free-choice learning.
In a recently published white paper, “How Invention Education and Free-Choice Learning Inspire Lifelong Exploration,” we explain the connections between these two pedagogies. Exploring the deep history of free-choice learning, we discuss what makes this pedagogy so engaging and why now is the time to apply some of its strategies in your classroom.
We invite you to read an excerpt from this white paper below:
The term “free-choice learning” was coined by John Falk, founder of the Institute for Learning Innovation and Emeritus Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University, and Lynn Dierking, professor at Oregon State University, in part to highlight the fact that individuals are self-motivated to learn about subjects in which they are most interested.
Their work, paired with a robust body of other scholarly research, has created a near universal consensus among educational circles concerning the positive impact that choice has on children’s engagement in learning.
In their influential book, “Lessons Without Limit,” Falk and Dierking argue that while on its surface the term “free-choice learning” might sound chaotic, in truth it represents the style of learning that is most natural and common.
“Free-choice learning is the most common type of learning in which people engage. It is self-directed, voluntary, and guided by individual needs and interests — learning that we will engage in throughout our lives. Since it is the learning that we do when we want to, by definition it involves a strong measure of choice — choice over what, why, where, when, and how we will learn.”
As Falk and Dierking explain, free-choice learning is “the learning that we do when we want to.” So in this context, a lack of engagement is no longer an impediment to student progress. In our own lives, for example, learning about topics that interest us, from making the perfect homemade pizza to learning how to code, is naturally compelling and self-sustaining.
To maintain a functioning education system at the national level, however, students need to learn subject matter that might not naturally appeal to them. Learning standards and proficiencies segmented by grade level ensure that students graduating high school possess well-rounded knowledge and abilities across a wide range of fields. With this foundational learning in place, students are positioned to choose to try their hand at entrepreneurship, developing a trade skill or specializing in a particular field at the collegiate level.
In a paper titled “The Contribution of Free-Choice Learning to Public Understanding of Science,” Falk categorizes this type of education as “formal education,” and explains that it plays an essential role in introducing us to both new areas of knowledge and skill sets.
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