More about Student Choice/Freedom

Sam Tanner writes,

High school students are not used to freedom in academic work.

I agree, and am pleased that he has just done the assignment he knows pushes them. They are in charge of demonstrating their mastery, in whatever way works best for them.

Saw a blog post today with a similar message, “Demonstrating learning doesn’t have to look the same for every student” by Amber Teamann. She talks more about elementary students, but the theory is the same.

In our particular situation, the vast majority of assignments at my daughter’s high school involve demonstrating her mastery of the subject through a prescribed, teacher led task. At least in her experience, it’s been a rare instance when she could do this in whatever way she wanted. In most cases, Mr. Tanner’s class being the exception, she’s struggled with this – as have her peers. They have been so trained to do what they were told that they cannot think for themselves.

In her particular situation, the way she’s being asked to demonstrate mastery is through word-based tests. This is not her strength, and she has not always done “well” (when measured by grades.) This can lead to a learned helplessness, so eventually the student stops trying. Learning becomes all about the grades and performance on tests, not about learning and analyzing the material.

Yet, when she found the confidence (in Mr. Tanner’s English classes) to explore and explain her mastery as she wished, she created elaborate projects that accomplished the goal: show what she learned. She integrated an entire trimester’s worth of learning into one art project.

This is life, people. There isn’t a teacher always telling us what to produce. Yes, certain jobs require this, but for the most part, we choose the jobs that fit us. We develop solutions to problems. We communicate to others — and we often choose to do this in a way that suits our personality and strengths. Why aren’t students encouraged to do this, too?

Stealth PBL

I have a ton of respect for teachers who teach they way they know is right, in spite of all the pressure on them to teach the status quo. Fortunately, my daughter has had one of these teachers. It has had a significant impact for the better.

Here’s a recent blog post he wrote about the project he assigns to most of his classes. A couple of paragraphs explain why he does this and its impact.

Here’s what he does:

I inflate the point total, give the students a list of the state standards we were supposed to meet as a class, and allow them two weeks to assemble everything that they accomplished in the class as evidence that they worked to meet said standards. At its core, the project is an interpretation of project-based learning which, at its core, is a response to Dewey’s theorization of experiential or authentic learning. This approach has always seemed a more authentic assessment of what a kid actually got out of reading literature or writing essays with me for the duration of a semester.

At this school, this project is significantly different than what most classes require. As I’ve discussed in many previous posts, the amount of multiple choice testing is ridiculous. I’ve bored this particular teacher with rants about this many times in the past (poor guy). I am always so impressed that he just does what he knows is best. He understands these kids and gets great results.

It also seems fantastically out of place in a high school. Tests and worksheets are far more expected than an open space for students to express content in their own way. Veteran colleagues or well-trained students are often baffled or dismissive when I explain the project to them.

How do kids react?

The final project frustrates and confuses them because they aren’t sure what they are supposed to do. High school students are not used to freedom in academic work.

That last sentence is key (emphasis is mine.) So much of high school is doing what the teacher wants in order to get the best grade in order to get into college. Kids don’t get much chance to explore their own thinking. It’s so much about memorizing and spitting back.

I still don’t get why spitting information back is preparation for college or for life after college. In my job, I never have to spit back information (and I’m a historian!) I’m always problem solving, creating solutions, finding information and developing better ways of doing things.

I have to say, it has been gratifying watching my daughter do the final project for this teacher (she’s had two classes with him where she’s had to do this project.) She wasn’t frustrated or confused. I honestly have never seen her put as much time, thought and effort into a homework assignment. Both times, she spent hours creating her project.

Her projects were just that — creative. Not rote. They were both visual representations of the course content. They were not literal, they were abstract. While one did involve words, the words were secondary to the visual and tactile representation. The words were part of the art. When asked about it, she could totally explain how the project reflected what they learned in class. She was able to create and think, rather than just spit back in a prescribed manner.

I’m just grateful these kids had the opportunity to work with him.