Imagine coming into class one day after discovering the lesson plan you worked on all week has vanished. Your instincts, your experiences, your very trust in your own intuitive instructional nature—it's all laid bare. Now what? It's the time for teaching innovation and discovery of the unknown through messy learning. This is your chance to let your learners lead the way and show you what they can do. It's time for some unstructured learning.
Just as the term suggests, unstructured learning is learning with no real structure. In this kind of learning there's no linear journey from A to B to C and so on. There's no definitive lesson plan or rigid template for this brand of teaching and learning. Also, a student isn't expected to produce a solution to a problem or to answer a challenge in a finite number of ways.
Instead, unstructured learning gives the individual students exactly what they need, which is space to grow.
They are given a clear understanding of the learning intentions and the criteria for their success. From there they forge their own paths, and the journey is continuous. It's full of rich experiences of learning from mistakes and asking meaningful questions that lead to more delicious discoveries. In short, it's what learning was meant to be.
Unstructured learning is an authentic real-world way of learning. That's because the real world itself doesn't have neat compartments or set disciplines for success.
It demands adaptability, patience, and a willingness to learn and to use what is learned in the moment. Most of all, it requires us to take full responsibility for what we learn.
For our learners to be successful, that's the shift in ownership that needs to happen, and it's what unstructured learning encourages. We must shift responsibility for learning from the teacher, where it has been, to the learner where it should be.
As we said, unstructured learning is non-linear learning which is like a tangled string meeting itself several times at different angles. When you look at something at different angles, your perception is strengthened and each angle reinforces your understanding. That's the beauty of unstructured learning, and why the non-linear nature of the Essential Fluencies fully supports it.
Our students expect to be able to learn in this way in school in the modern age. It challenges and inspires them to grow and succeed in ways that traditional chalk-and-talk instruction never can.
A Place for Everything
We understand that's a strong statement, but let's be clear. This is not to say that oral presentation and guidance has no place in education and should be avoided. Actually, the opposite is true; if it’s done the right way, it can be impactful and can have great value. The point, however, is just that—it must be used in the right way at the right time, preferably in conjunction with the unstructured approaches.
Unstructured learning happens when we let students play unguided so that they draw conclusions on their own.
Nevertheless, it still requires support from the teacher, particularly in the early stages of learning. This happens in the form of scenarios, templates, guiding questions, scaffolded skills, and the like. In the end, however, all these methods are designed to support and guide students as they wade happily through the unknown.
Though the teacher provides specific guidelines and goals, students must engage their higher-order thinking processes when learning is unstructured. After all, the learning belongs to them now because we've made the shift. We can support them and help them when called upon, but the learning paths are theirs to walk. Take comfort in knowing they prefer it this way, and that they learn better because of it.
So is it just a matter of saying, "you're on your own today"? Absolutely not, and this is where your teaching instincts can really kick in. It's your opportunity to make learning exciting for your students in a number of ways. In the case studies we'll examine below, Solution Fluency is the tool these educators have used with their kids, and with remarkable results. Because of its cyclical nature, learning becomes a completely non-linear process of exploration, discovery, and critical thinking. If you wanted, you could say Solution Fluency is a structured process for promoting unstructured learning.
What Our Friends Say About Unstructured Learning
In our work around the globe with bringing the Essential Fluencies to global schools, we've been inspired by the friends we've made on the way. In many of our case studies with these schools, you'll find plenty of examples of how lack of structure is giving learning back to the students:
"With Solution Fluency the learning is about students and their interests. My students feel that it has become more exciting and free … my class feels that by taking away the structured/robotic learning and leaving them in charge of what they are learning, they will all have some form of success, whether it is great or small." (Susan Bishop, Parap Primary School)
"Students were involved in the inquiry process and decided which avenues to pursue along the way, which they enjoyed because they were not being told what to do but rather they were being asked what could you do?" (Alexandra Parlagreco, Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy)
"In each of our Solution Fluency experiences, the students have learned the mandated curriculum and so much more without us having to explicitly teach it to them, and in a way that is more meaningful and memorable." (Ellie Barclay, Newport Gardens Primary School)
"By using the Fluencies and applying their methodologies, I have made the shift from an expert to a facilitator of education. This has changed the whole way that I teach in allowing students to learn how to learn, and how to think." (Anna Russell, Melrose High School)
“Students are loving the more hands-on approach to learning that working with the Fluencies has brought, and teachers are loving the chance to shake things up a bit and try something new.” (Amber Chase, Calrossy Anglican School)
It's time to play and to let go of rigid teaching in favour of unstructured learning. For this to happen, teachers have to foster trust in their students. They have to be willing to take a step back and put a little slack on the reins of traditional pedagogy. In short, we need to let things get a little messy. Ease into it—it's a bold step and it will transform everything.