Talking to members of Francis W. Parker’s Class of 2019 has been a love of mine since 2013, when they entered the school as 7th graders, and I was their teacher. This group is a thoughtful, sassy, and delightful one, and I was so glad to get to see many of them this past week when I was coaching some of their new teachers.
One main focus of our quick catching-up was about the beginnings of their senior projects (something that Parker does incredibly well; if you’re a teacher looking for some strong thinking about this, I’m happy to connect you to experts!) and the ideas that they were mulling over. One student wants to learn about making homemade pasta, another is pondering learning how to surf, and one more wants to make sculptures using a chainsaw. These are bold and ambitious ideas for study; they aren’t intimately connected to a canonical subject area, but this project isn’t about the canon or tradition—it’s about a student cultivating her or his interest and curiosity.
Teachers often control the wonder their students can display in school. We give options for research projects and offer a few different ways students might share their understanding; those are important choices, and it’s vital that we give them. But I also believe it’s important to let students explore what they truly want, constraining them with the fewest possible limits and parameters.
From our first years, we develop preferences. We’re curious about how things work, the connections between objects, and cause and effect. We let very young kids explore expansively (though safely). But as kids get older, our education system gets more and more interested in confining their thinking and asking for standardization instead of divergence. So I genuinely enjoy speaking with older students about what they’re really interested in and how they’re going to structure their learning. It’s interesting, too, when they’re unsure of what to do. How do you coach someone to figure out what they’re interested in?
Giving students this level of autonomy means letting go of some of the traditional ideas of how school is conducted: Not all students will be doing the same thing at the same time, they won’t all have similar questions, and they might not be able to sit at desks to do their best work. There can be a kind of messiness that outside observers see and mistake for a teacher’s poor management or unruly kids.
But learning is messy. It’s unpredictable. It’s circuitous, rough-around-the-edges, and continual. When we ask students to understand that learning isn’t just a linear path that’s carefully curated, we’re removing some of the barriers that have existed between school and “the real world.” When we ask them to go through a process where they are the principal investigator in figuring out their own learning, we teach them how to think instead of what to think. And I’ve yet to meet a teacher who wants students to go forth from their classroom without being a better thinker.
So how can a teacher incorporate more choice and greater autonomy for her or his students outside of a senior project-type experience?
-Don’t be afraid to let your students be the experts. Our students know a great deal, and we need to make sure that we never underestimate or devalue the expertise they bring to the room.
-Ask them for their opinions and then ask them why they think that.
-Assume that they know what they're talking about, or that they have a really good reason for thinking as
they do. When you have a legitimate reason to counter them, be empathetic and transparent.
-Invite students to propose different ways they might do something, and then let them.
-Try proposing one way that a student might demonstrate their understanding and then say, “If you have
another idea for how you might do this, talk to me! Let’s see if it’ll make sense.”
-Think constantly about content, process, and product. The more you can allow for flexibility within these three areas, the more you’re allowing for students to have choices to make.
-Does every student need to see exactly the same thing? Or read or hear exactly the same thing to do
their best work?
-Could students choose the speed by which they move through stations? Could a couple of stations be
required and several be "if you have time"?
-How do your students process? Is writing helpful for some while others do better processing verbally?
-As a response, could one student produce a piece of artwork while another produced writing? Could
another student make a video?
-Incorporate their ideas by listening to their feedback. The more we can follow their interests and validate their thinking, the more likely it’ll be that you create a classroom environment that’s flexible enough to allow them to see themselves in it.
-Reflections after a unit of study is complete can help you prepare for next time, but asking them how it’s
going while they’re in process can help you tweak as you teach.
When students become your collaborators rather than the folks you need to comply with your directives, the more engaging, energized, and democratic your classroom will be. And while at times compliance can sound like it’s a good idea, consider what you’re preparing kids for. In what institution(s) do people have to do the same things at the same time under the same conditions? Where else are people made to be silent in hallways and walk in orderly lines from one place to the next?
Teaching and learning isn’t nearly as neat and organized an endeavor as some teachers might hope for, and the more it focuses most prominently on the teacher’s way of thinking, the more we’ll produce standardized students.
Do you want help thinking about how to bring more choice and autonomy into your classroom? Reach out to us! We’d love to help.
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