In our Cohort 2 staff development session on Thursday we had some very interesting conversations. I thought one discussion in particular was very helpful to me, when in the morning session we discussed the relative merits of allowing students to have more control over what they learn versus making sure they are exposed to a variety of ideas. I think most of us would agree that allowing students to have more of a say in what they learn is empowering, and is more likely to engage them and therefore they are then more likely to be successful learners. I also think that most of us would agree that our students need exposure to lots of different ideas, even topics that don't necessarily appeal to them, at least not initially. That they need to engage the world of ideas around them, not just the specific areas that interest them, and that our passion as teachers can help facilitate their engagement in areas we deem valuable. As with just about everything we discuss, I think there is a balance to be had, it's just somewhat tricky to figure out where that balance is.
There was one point that was raised that I've been thinking about a lot since the discussion. When talking about giving students more choice the issue was raised that students would often (or possibly always) choose whatever choice they perceived to be easier. I'm not sure if I disagreed at the time or not, but I don't think I do agree with this. I think that to the extent this is true, it's because we've trained them to do this. Since very early on in their school careers, we've drilled into them how important grades are. By the time they get to high school, my fear - as we've discussed previously - is that they begin to believe that grades are the goal. That learning becomes subservient to, and sometimes completely overwhelmed by, grades. Therefore, if getting a good grade is so all important, then isn't choosing the easier assignment the logical choice? Instead of condemning them for it, shouldn't we be rejoicing that they've learned their lessons well?
I believe that if we can remove the emphasis on grades and refocus on learning, students more often than not will choose the most interesting and personally relevant assignment, not necessarily the easiest. I know this may be somewhat naive (or possibly "hopelessly naive") on my part, but I think we need to start trusting our students more. I think they are more than capable of making good choices for themselves and - when they do not - that it's our role as teachers to help them make a better choice in the future. That our role needs to be less about making choices and decisions for them, and more about helping them become good decision makers for themselves. Isn't one of our goals that when they leave high school, they are well prepared to move into the "adult" world? If so, shouldn't we give them some practice in making those decisions in the relative safety of high school? After all, that's one of the main arguments we give for our variable schedule, so why do we seem to shy away from it in our classrooms? (As a side note, maybe if we do this a lot fewer of them will move back in with Mom and Dad for most of their 20's.)
As I've stated several times before, I think this is their education, not ours. If that's true - and if we want our students to really and truly believe that - then we are going to have to start trusting them. Yes, the level of trust and freedom will vary depending on age and individual maturity level, just like it already does (or should). And yes we still have the realities of curriculum and mandated testing. But I think that if we truly want them to be self-motivated, life-long, successful learners in the 21st century, we are going to have to give up some of the control and trust them to make more of their own decisions - with our guidance, of course. Trust - but verify. I fear that if we don't, if we insist on adhering to an industrial age schooling model, we risk losing all relevance whatsoever. And, given the learning choices that students are beginning to have in whatever we are going to call this current, post information age, I think we need to keep in mind that we no longer have a captive audience. We need to continue to give students reasons to choose to learn with us - or they will learn without us.
As usual, I'm thinking out loud here so I'd love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. Anything you can add that will help push my thinking along will be greatly appreciated.