Sunday, August 29, 2010

Harry Potter, Hogwarts, and Self-Directed Learning Part I

By now most people are familiar with Harry Potter and the legendary school known as Hogwarts. It is so popular that Disney has it's own Harry Potter theme park. According to the franchise is worth over 15 billion dollars a year. That's a lot of sickles, knuts and galleons. I must admit I am in love with the books. I find I reread the entire series at least once or twice a year, sometimes forward in time from 1 to 7, sometimes I start in the middle, sometimes the end.

I just began asking myself why I am in love with this series, much in the same way I love Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While I love the other two authors for the story of the classic struggle of good versus evil, I find myself drawn to J.K. Rowling's characters for a different reason. Yes the stories are setup for an epic struggle of good over evil, yes the character have to overcome great hardships and struggles, and yes in her world good people die before their time. All these things are true, but whether knowingly or unknowingly, Ms. Rowling created one of the most perfect environments to foster self-directed learning for her charges. In the first of this series we are going to explore assessment, curriculum, and attendance laws of her world compared to ours.

For most wizarding families, children are home schooled until age eleven, when they can choose to go to the formal school known as Hogwarts. I want to emphasize choice. It is assumed that families have the primary responsibility for educating their children. By the time they reach Hogwarts it is expected that children can read and solve basic math problems. There are no compulsory education laws (true fans of the series know that when Lord Voldemort took over, choice became outlawed, and muggle born children had to be able prove that they had at least one pure blood wizard in their family history).

Let's turn to the curriculum at Hogwarts. First and foremost the majority of the learning focuses on hands on skill development: Defense Against the Dark Arts, Potions, Herbology, Transfiguation, Care of Magical Animals, and Charms. Most lessons consisted a of portion of theoretical knowledge and then a very intensive lab application. Unlike American Schooling, teachers at Hogwarts did not lecture extensively, instead they use the lecture as a small foundation piece and then put their students through a series of more and more challenging and relevant course work. Students at Hogwarts knew that what they were learning had a direct application to their eventual participation in the adult wizarding world. I doubt most students in American High Schools would say the same.

Turning to assessments, at Hogwarts students were given authentic assessments on their skill mastery and knowledge of their subject. In their fifth and seventh years they were given major exams known as O.W.L.S. and N.E.W.T.S. Exams are conducted by outside community experts and typically consisted of an essay portion (testing knowledge) and a skill demonstration (testing ability). This is very different than the public school model which typically only tests knowledge and typically it is done in the cheapest and most expedient fashion, i.e. multiple choice electronic scoring. There is no graduation diploma at Hogwarts, tests are not used to label students, they are used at the end of the fifth year to guide students in their courses for the rest of their education. It helps the student and advisor map out a learning plan the celebrates their gifts as a wizard. Take Neville, perhaps one of the most gifted students in Herbology, later he became a professor at Hogwarts. During his early learning he would have been considered one of the worst students and labeled a failure, but Hogwarts allowed him to develop his passion and pursue it with vigor. Do our tests allow for this to happen?

While Hogwarts is fictional, there are lessons to learned behind the entrance on station platform 9 and 3/4. The next blog will focus on freedom and responsibility given to students at Hogwarts compared to public schools.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I've thought about the life lessons that can be gleaned from Star Wars and Harry Potter, but never gave thought to the educational lessons they could offer. Thanks for enlightening us with your postings.

    P.S. Thanks to Jamie for following my blog. Glad to have you along for the ride. :)

  2. Thanks Hannah,
    I tried to leave a comment on your blog but it wouldn't let me.