November 6, 2013

The Role Of Student Choice In Connected Classrooms – from Don on Edudemic
This post first appeared on Edudemic.
There have been some questions that have been bugging me (again) recently.
  • What is the relevance of the skills and content we teach; and who has decided that we, as teachers, know best?
  • Who decided that we can’t trust the choice and direction of young people?
  • Why is it OK to impose boring, unengaging lessons for the sake of a student’s “TBD future?”
How many schools and how many classrooms allow student choice? And, in adult-centered spaces, how often do young people have the opportunity to make important decisions? Our mainstream educational machine is fueled by the idea that adults know best—that adults must impart their knowledge to prepare students for a demanding world. Our responsibility as teachers is to teach students for their own good…a “good” that more and more of us are having difficulty understanding. We teach students addition and multiplication facts because some day they will need to calculate very quickly…a tip at a restaurant or a bill at the grocery store in case their smartphone runs out of batteries. We teach them to write a five paragraph essay on the theme of a book because they will need those writing skills when…writing an argument to dispute a lawsuit. We teach them how to conjugate “to be” in Spanish because it might save their life…at a fruit stand in South America. While we are preparing them for possible situations, should these situations define the entirety of the direction of their education? I propose that we introduce some choice and some unknown into the situation of school. What if we allow students to make choices about what they learn, how they learn, and when they learn? In a way, 1:1 iPad programs are sparking choice whether we’re OK with it or not.

iPads Bring Choice

iPads have shocked the school system and provided us with a chance to reexamine student choice. The tool is intuitive, flexible, and powerful. So much of our modern day school systems assume that the teacher, the school, and the adult knows best. In the iPad classroom, that’s just not the case. Truly successful iPad implementations happen when teachers share ownership of the way work gets done with their students. When students and teachers learn iPad tools together, the result is synergistic. In successful iPad Classrooms, teachers give students the space to demonstrate their work and understanding using a range of tools beyond just “a Powerpoint to show what you know about the Roman Empire” or “a 500 word essay about the pros and cons of Communism.” To paraphrase Chris Lehman (@chrislehmann), if we give students an assignment that produces 25 copies of identical work, we’ve given a recipe, not a thought-provoking, opportunity for growth. When teachers give some props to the unknown, and task students to show their deep understanding of a subject or skill with the best tools available, you might say miracles happen. We should be a little less afraid of miracles. Who would have ever known that Rachel was an artist and could design an animation of the golgi apparatus in action? Who would have guessed that Janet knew math fractions so well that her articulate screencasts could be used to teach other students in the grade above her? If administration and faculty challenge students to do their best, and follow their natural inclinations and curiosity – to go outside the limited boundaries we set for the sake of standards – we open up a world of possibilities for students and for our society that adults might never imagine. I propose that we, as schools, challenge ourselves. I propose that we re-examine the essentials and assumptions that have driven curriculum, the way that we think learning looks, and give students some choices about the how and the what that they engage in.

Some truths to consider:

In “real life,” students often have a voice expressed through social media, peer groups, sports team, etc. At school, they often have no platform at all. How can we build platforms for a wide range of students to express their voices? In “real life,” students have to make decisions that affect their health and wellbeing. At school, we often don’t even trust them to choose where to eat their lunch. There’s a large gap that we need to address. In “real life,” students have to solve problems every day. “What if my parents don’t show up to pick me up?” “What if my friend decides to drive after drinking alcohol?” “What if a friend chooses to speak badly of another friend?” In school, we create strict guidelines that prevent bad things from happening or intervene quickly before young people can mediate themselves. How do we make sure we are scaffolding education to empower students to solve problems on their own?

How do we reinvent?

When you ask people to design a solution for a current problem, they speak and imagine from what they know. If the problem is how do we help students work and learn better, the solution often involves some combination of desks, whiteboards, textbooks, homework, and sitting down for long hours at a time in rapt attention. We imagine that we must prepare our students for the work world we that know. We need to let that go. We don’t need to be responsible, to push our young people in a general direction without guidance, and wish them “good luck.” But, we absolutely must be creative in imagining what an evolved learning situation might be, and perhaps it looks more like learning 5000 years ago than it does that of today. Through the tools which technology puts in our hands, we have the power to augment hands on, real-life learning by investigating ideas, accessing world experts, and designing complex solutions or products with a high degree of accuracy. We’ve got a lot of work to do. If you could redesign education guided by the ideas that:
  1. Students can make important choices
  2. Technology tools can expand learning in ways we cannot imagine yet
  3. Learning doesn’t look the same as it did for us
Then, we might be able to imagine an educational system that doesn’t have to “get out of the way” for young people to be successful, but actually helps to guide and unleash the incredible imaginations of the people who will change our world. Don will be addressing this topic and more at the upcoming iPad Summits in Boston and San Diego.