Friday, January 21, 2011

Letting Go of Being In Charge

I keep waiting for the dam to break on my latest venture in public education - allowing students to design their own learning.  Over the past few years I've read article after article about classrooms where kids choose and design their learning targets and goals in a subject they are interested in studying at a more advanced level.  And, I've always dismissed the idea because, frankly, the idea freaked me out.  I could envision a classroom of chaos, with students wandering aimlessly and essential learning targets being all but forgotten.

I've now made a 180 degree shift in my thinking and the results are incredible!

When my class roster included over 30 students who had already taken the grade level Tech classes previously offered I was forced to come up with something different to accommodate these students and provide them with meaningful learning experiences.  Enter a student designed independent study program.

To prepare for this journey a few tracks of independent studies were developed to serve as models for students.  Students could either design a course from these tracks or develop their own track built upon interest.  A set of guidelines and a schedule of events were written to provide daily and weekly structure. And then, I did what I never thought I would do in a classroom - I turned the students loose.

You can hear a pin drop on the side of the room where the independent study students are busy learning, thinking, and problem solving.  They tell me 90 minutes isn't enough time and that they can't wait to return.  7th and 8th grade students are reading non-fiction purposefully.  When an article isn't good enough they move on to find one that meets their needs.  Students write up and evaluate their projects upon completion based on the essential learnings that are met and then publish these write-ups on their blogs for teacher assessment.  They comment on each other's work, share resources, keep a daily "schedule of events" and encourage success in each other.  And then, they learn.

I know there's some tweaking that needs to happen on the Independent Study design and tracks and I'm open to suggestions.  I'm also thankful my coworker decided to venture into this area of learning with me and is offering Independent Study at the high school level.  Together, we brainstorm, offer each other support, and marvel at the intensity of student work.

I keep wondering, had I the guts to do this while teaching Physical Science, would I have seen the same results without a 1:1 computer setting that I am so fortunate to have now.  The bottom line is student designed learning is positive.  And, so far, the dam is holding.

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