Monday, May 01, 2006

Could (Should?) Students Help Us Design Our Units?

From a post by Clarence Fisher:
Before starting a new unit, could I post outcomes on a wiki and a list of past assignments, possible choices, suggestions, and then ask kids, or other teachers, or other kids from around the world who may stumble upon the space (or be led there for that matter) for suggestions?
You should read the entire post - he has some interesting thoughts. I've been thinking some of the same things (although not quite as eloquently). I'm not sure if it would be through a wiki, or a blog, or something like Writely, or even something else I haven't discovered yet, but I think the technology would be the relatively easy piece of the puzzle. Clarence lays out the groundwork that he's thinking about in his post, and I think that's a great start.

I think this has great potential to not only imcrease student engagement in our classes, but also improve teaching and learning. As I've been saying all year (incessantly, I know) - it's the students' education, not ours. How much more powerful and effective could it be if they had much more say in it? As Clarence indicates, there would have to be ground rules and certain items that would be non-negotiable from the teacher's standpoint. And we would have to start very slow - both in terms of number of units and how we encouraged students to participate. I also think inviting other teachers to participate in addition to the students has some great potential.

There are two main conditions that I think are necessary to try something like this. One of them - as always - is time. Time for the teacher to plan and manage this (although ultimately - if successful - this could be a time saver). The second condition is a teacher willing to take a risk - which I think is a huge issue for many of us. But if this was successful, think of the power of collaborative planning. Think of how amazing our classrooms could be if the best ideas rose to the surface. It could truly be implementing "best practices" - and best ideas - in our classrooms. And how powerful would it be for our students to become their own best teachers? As most teachers will attest, we didn't really learn our subject areas until we had to teach them to someone else. Why not give our students that same opportunity?


  1. I read Mr. Fischer's post and love the idea. I think I was sort of envisioning the same thing as I plan for the start of next year. I was thinking about giving kids a list of assessment options for each and every unit. As an example, maybe kids are given the choice of a paper, project, essay, writing their own test, video, etc. to do as their final assessment for the unit. Each kid could choose what they wanted to do, provided the outcomes/goal/common learnings had been presented at the start. And just to keep things from getting monotonous, they would have to choose a different type of assessment for each unit. This would also really challenge them to stretch themselves in many directions. Now, that might be a grading nightmare, so maybe everyone does the same after voting on it as a class. Again, these are just the beginning stages of my thought process, but doing away with "traditional" test unit after unit might offer kids a breath of fresh air and some motivation to invest in their own learning. Any other ideas anyone?

  2. I like it best when we have some say in how the unit is laid out. It would also help teach students their individual learning styles, which, alarmingly enough, most people don't know. I always learn best when I can choose how to learn. I just wouldn't suggest having everyone vote on a single way to teach the unit, at least not to an extreme degree. It would play out to find the "easiest" way to do it and the most popular way. And even though it may save time, it can be detrimental. There's always a few students who are stuck being in the minority of opinion, and they end up detesting the entire unit since they feel they can't learn or participate as they would want to.

  3. Cara - I think it's exciting that you are considering those assessment options for next year. How far along are you in your thinking? Are you collaborating with anyone at this point, or having any conversations with others about this? Which leads me to my next question which is "where are we as a schol with this type of collaboration? How many teams or departments are engaged in this type of practice? How far along are we with these groups? At what what point do we need to do a schoolwide assessment to measure where we are?

  4. I really like the idea of giving different options when it comes to assessing students. I think many times students think that a project is easier than a paper and pencil test. In my opinion, the learning is almost always greater when they take ownership in what they do, thus a project of some sort. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for the traditional test just maybe not everytime. As far as the grading nitemare that you mentioned, maybe you could divide them into groups and as a group they would need to come up with some sort of assessment then you would only have 4-5 different one. I observed Marlys Ferrill's honors juniors class the other day. I was SO SO impressed with her "assessment". She completely left it up to the kids as to how they would deliver a book report. They could work in groups, alone, write a paper, present, whatever worked for them. I only saw one presentation but WOW! The work that they did was incredible! A group of about 15 kids completely decorated and interpreted "Heart of Darkness" for the rest of the class. They did an incredible job and all had some part. Afterwords they gave a quick summary of the book and explained some of what they did and why. I just wish more adults would have been there. I don't know the particulars of how Marlys set this up but she might be worth asking how she juggles all of the different ideas.

  5. Just as I was reading this, something came to me. When doing group projects, it's sometimes nice when the teacher assigns groups. Especially on projects that matter, as in place of a test. In classes, there are always the predetermined cliques, which never seem to be awfullly productive. Also, there are always the outsiders in the class who end up either working alone due to embarrassment or stuck in a group they feel awkward in. So on major projects, if the teacher decides groups, it makes the project more fair and allow the work to be split up more evenly. Because there's nothing worse than when your partner shows up on the day it's due and says something along the lines of, "Dude! I totally forgot, you can improvise, right?"

  6. Thanks for all of your input Molly. I guess this post is kind of how I want my class to run. Students offering intelligent and valuable insight on how things should look!