Opening doors for students to decide what they learn about in your classroom

Finding our passion and what we are genuinely interested in is not easy. During my days at school, I received very little choice in the education that I was given. Beyond having the choice to study different subjects in Grades 9 to 12, all my school friends and I pretty much had the same education. We studied the same Mathematics topics, English books and  did the same Science practicals. The tests were the same and there was very little
coursework. Even then, all the projects we did were pretty much the same.

It was a real privilege to recently view a photography exhibition that one of the students at my school recently put together. This exhibition was part of a Personal Project,  which is completed as part of study in Grade 10. While there are some parameters set for the scope of the project there is significant room for the student to undertake an exploration into something they are intrigued or passionate about. For many of the students it is the highlight of their year as they carry memories of and lessons learned from this 9 month project well into their adult lives.

The most important feature of the Personal Project is that students decide what they want to learn about, identifying what they already know, and discovering what they will need to know to complete their project.

I have deliberately highlighted and underlined the words decide what they want to learn about. It is absolutely vital that students are given opportunities to pursue an interest or passion and find out more about themselves as learners.

A criticism of this Personal Project is that it comes on top of the ‘subjects’ that students are already studying; it is something extra. In saying that, a carefully planned student schedule can create time for such projects, if you really want them to become part of learning at your school. Students at our school are given one 65 minute period per week to engage with their project.

Further challenges of implementing a Personal Project is that not every teacher will be excited about mentoring and facilitating project-based learning, some will love it and others will hate it, feeling that it is “an additional burden” on top of what they do.

Some teachers do not feel comfortable with supporting students in this way, as most projects fall outside the boundaries of traditional subjects. Subsequently, the quality of facilitation and guidance can vary greatly between teacher supervisors. It is, therefore, important that coordination of such a project, in order for it to be a significant and valuable learning experience, demonstrates a commitment to preparing, training and support of teacher supervisors.

Schools, however, do not have to implement project-based learning like the Personal Project for choice to be given to students. A number of schools have invested in initiatives such as Genius Hour while others have devised specific courses that enable students to take greater ownership of their learning and pursue their passions and interests. Furthermore, a great deal of choice can be given to students within their subject classrooms. While it is acknowledged that so many school systems have to cover a set curriculum with set learning outcomes, it is possible to be creative within the confines of a mandated curriculum and standardised testing.

In Mathematics, students can undertake statistical investigations in areas that are of interest to them, they do not have rely on the teacher to providing them with a set of statistics; they choose their own whether it be football statistics or data about the prevalence of AIDS from the World Health Organisation. In Art, students can be given the opportunity to decide the artists and art works that they wish to discover more about. In Literature Studies, students can be given greater choice in the books they explore. If students are learning about conflict in History, then they can be given choice in deciding the event that they wish to learn more about.

Beyond the classroom, as part of a school’s extra-curricular activities program, students can be provided with the opportunity to initiate their own interest group activity. Last year a group of students from my school were particularly interested in film-making. So they started their own Film Club, which involved students leading their own activity club that focused on making a movie to be shown to their fellow students. The role of the teacher was not to instruct, the teacher supervised and facilitated but it was the students who were learning for themselves.

We cannot give students choice in everything that they learn but we can take realistic steps in making school more interesting and relevant to them. With so much more access to information in this present day and age, it is important for us to allow students to use this information and harness it in positive ways to learn more about the world in which they live. We need to feed their thirst for inquiry, not stifle it.

The role of the teacher has changed too, which is certainly confronting for some. Teachers are no longer the ‘fountain of all knowledge’. The best teachers are facilitators of learning, enabling students to develop the skills to become both collaborative and independent lifelong learners.

 

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