“I wish school curriculums let students create more.”

12 Nov

Last month, I observed a few classes at Lakeside, an independent school in Seattle, WA. There, teachers are moving toward, what they call, a playground model in which students are encouraged to take risks and experiment. While they of course still have a curriculum that they follow, students do have freedom to do things like design, tweak, and retry their own lab experiments and to play with programming software to figure out how chaos and order are a part of an author’s writing. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Of course these things are not total anomalies in public education, but with increasing demands to produce evidence of student achievement, time dedicated to trying new things and allowing students the freedom to make and learn from mistakes can sometimes take a back seat to things like test prep. What seems more amazing is that students recognize that trend as well. They’re not naive in that they know acing an AP exam will put them in good standings for college admissions, but they also seem to crave more choice and more time to play.

This week, I’m reading through student reflections, in which they discuss their greatest takeaways from working with the ILP and the work in subsequent classes that makes them feel most accomplished. Here is one that seems to encapsulate what many of his peers are also thinking:

“NO other class has let me create my own work from the ground up, and this vertical growth has been enjoyable in that I have learned how to independently pursue relevant knowledge and also how to put my independent creative vision into this discovery of knowledge. Especially in my narrative writing. I found this unit to be most enjoyable because of this promotion of free creation. I don’t imagine I’ll get to use this skill again because AP classes are intensely geared towards taking a test, not promoting the free ideas and creation that all student all really need. I wish more people realized that creation is more important than just doing activities, like during this English class and in other classes as well (world language, especially), and that’s my greatest takeaway. I wish school curriculums let students create more…. This unit has made me realize that the current system of education desperately needs to reform for more independent creation.” (10th grade Honors Student)

The student’s terms, “vertical growth” and “free creation” really strike me because I see them echoed in the pleas of many other students.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. We tried again after knowing more about our audience's needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build a piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. So, we tried again after learning more about our audience’s needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions and different perspectives.

Of course, there are many, many teachers who are doing amazing things with student creation, but it seems increasingly saved for elective classes in public education. When I took a professional development course on STEM across the curriculum at my school, I had the pleasure of experiencing what those students are yearning for. While setting us off on a project of our own creation, Design and Applied Technology teacher, Michael McFadden gave three pieces of wisdom that I couldn’t help but write down:

  • In the engineering process, students have to fail before they can start. It’s not until they fail and have to figure out why something didn’t work that they have a real problem to solve.
  • You’re never finished.
  • The two biggest requirements for any project–be engaged in the process and be as ambitious as you want.

This makes me wonder, especially in highly-tested subject areas or content-heavy courses, how can we do more to let our students explore, be ambitious, and engage in the process? How can we reconcile the need for grades on “finished” products if students are forever vertically growing? And how can we allow for students to learn from mistakes?

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