My last post talked about trusting kids’ desire to learn. There is one real obstacle to this that I need to acknowledge: we are so good at training and rewarding them for learning what we want them to learn, they don’t always know how to handle it or know what to do when we take away that control/reinforcement. I don’t mean they can’t do it, because they absolutely can, but it’s not as simple with a 13-year-old than it is with a 3-year-old.
A number of years ago, I was in a discussion with high school students, and this idea came up: what if you could design your own assignment for a class, research something you were interested in and create a project that YOU wanted to create. One student, a senior who was an excellent student and very thoughtful in general, super kid, said something like, “Well, honestly, I’d rather not, because it’s easier to just have the assignment and know what you need to do to get an A. I have all this other stuff to do and other classes to take, so I’d rather just know what I need to do to get the grade I need. I know that’s wrong, but that’s the truth.”
I was that kid, so while his response was disheartening, I also got it. I was a student who wanted to know what would get me the A. The A was more important to me than the learning. This didn’t change until I was in graduate school. I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy learning before then, or that I didn’t have classes where I was excited about the content. I took a lot of wonderful classes in undergrad. But I always, always cared about the grade. I remember the moment that light bulb went off for me. I was working on a paper for a lit class in grad school, and I went to see the professor to talk about it. I had run into some issue with the topic I had picked–I can’t recall the specifics–and the prof basically asked me, point blank, why I was researching that topic. He asked me what I was interested in researching–not what I could easily find information on, or what would be publishable (my original topic had been chosen because there wasn’t anything out there about it, and I wanted to break new ground), but what I was interested in. As dumb as it sounds, I hadn’t really thought it mattered what I was interested in. But I ended up changing topics completely, and writing a decent paper that wasn’t going to break any ground and wasn’t that great of a paper since I had changed relatively late in the semester, but it was MY paper. I cared about it in a way I hadn’t cared about other papers I’d written. By the time I was back in grad school for my library degree, I was a different student. I wrote some strong papers and did some interesting work, because I had learned the important lesson of finding angles that meant something to me. I was way more likely to take the option of designing my own assignment, or tweaking it, or asking the prof for that option, and it made a huge difference in what I produced. More importantly, it made a huge difference in how I felt about learning and myself as a learner. It wasn’t about the grade anymore.
So, going back to the kids, I think it can be done, and I think the energy and desire are there. But we have a giant obstacle to overcome because some of these kids not only care about getting the A, but they WORRY about it, and some have a lot of pressure to get the good grades. We have taught them well, to look for those As and 4s (scale of 1 to 4) on their report cards. I don’t know how you change this. You don’t change it overnight, I know that.
For now, what gives me great hope is seeing how some of the teachers at my school are incorporating more student choice into projects–both in topic and presentation. Every time our kids get experience with this, it gets less intimidating for them, and less intimidating for us as teachers. It’s messy and challenging and unpredictable, but it works. When I see these kids researching their own questions, and coming up with their own ways of sharing what they learned, it feels like everything that is broken in the world can be fixed. It is powerful stuff. Every time we do this, I think it makes a difference. Trusting the kids doesn’t mean suddenly walking in one day and saying, “Okay, do what you want! You are the masters of your own learning!” We have to teach them (unteach them?), or guide them. They don’t trust themselves yet. But they can be trusted.
I’m curious to see how, as more and more of our teachers in the lower school and middle school incorporate student-driven inquiry into their classes, the way the kids approach and feel about these projects will change. I believe that it will become more and more comfortable, and kids will have an easier time diving in.
Assessment is a giant question, and I don’t have the answers to that. Assessment matters, I know. I think that is one of my areas where I want to learn/research: how do you work assessment into an inquiry-based educational environment?
Those are my thoughts for today. 🙂