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Learning at its Best

How Would Students Rethink Education?

Last year in my Multimedia Authoring class, I asked students to create short projects on school reform.  Their answers were far from revolutionary.  In fact, few of them seemed to want broad, sweeping reforms.  Instead, nearly all of them suggested the following:

  • Better cafeteria food with real ingredients
  • No school busses – nearly every child mentioned the bullying of bus rides as one of the reasons they hated school
  • More choice in their assignments or projects
  • Replace grades with feedback and portfolios (like we did in our class)
  • Staggered start and end times so that the school would “feel smaller”
  • More alternative sports in addition to the traditional ones
  • Off-campus community service once a week
  • Job-shadowing for one month of the year
  • A monthly educational field trip
  • iPads, netbooks or laptops in classes – they even brought up some interesting ways to raise money for these devices
  • More freedom in terms of leaving to use the restroom, eating a snack or getting a drink of water
  • More electives – while most of them agreed that we need math, they suggested that maybe they could choose pre-geometry or pre-algebra or in reading, they could have reading classes geared toward certain topics
  • A school garden

While a few of those might seem large at first glance, the reality is that most students wanted more authenticity and more autonomy.  None of the reforms they suggested involved “back to basics.”  None of them included firing all the teachers, either.  Instead, they were small, fairly inexpensive reforms that could have been done without the blessing of a politician, pundit or educrat.

*     *     *

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


15 thoughts on “How Would Students Rethink Education?

  1. John,

    This is important list. What strikes me is that everything on this list is reasonable, completely reasonable. A lot of it is supported by research to improve academic achievement (defined by standardized test scores) and self-esteem. It also strikes me as being quite sad that many of these things still need to be asked for, e.g. going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, and food made from real ingredients.

    Thanks for putting this up.


    Posted by Adam Burk | December 11, 2010, 5:16 pm
  2. This is a great list. It really makes you think about what education is in the eyes of the students. They have little autonomy over their learning – that needs to change! And they want to be healthier: lunches, snacks, water…bathroom! These are simple things that could really help their educational experience in general.

    Off campus community service and job shadowing – how wonderful. This shows students’ need to bridge what they do in school with what is true in life.

    Kudos to you for inquiring about what your students would like! Now, it’s our turn to provide these opportunities for our students!

    Posted by Elizabeth Peterson | December 11, 2010, 6:23 pm
  3. Like Adam, I see these as mostly reasonable. Most of my students look forward to my classes because I let them eat in class (not pies or messy stuff) as long as they clean up after themselves. The idea of staggered start times is interesting, though I must say a later start time (e.g. 10am) would be so cool. All the crap being forced on us at the moment is missing the point, because they are basing it on the broad (and incorrect) assumption that teachers aren’t up to the job. Instead of more standards and measurements, some decent support for the damaged kids we work with would help us no end.


    Posted by Tony Hall | December 11, 2010, 9:09 pm
  4. Interesting the thoughts of our kids. I am interested in the why behind these suggestions only because it helps us to understand more about this next generation. I noticed that there is a small technology piece–but a good one. Nice and targeted. Thanks for sharing!


    Posted by Mike Starrett | December 11, 2010, 10:26 pm
  5. I am not surprised by the answers at all! My metaphor may be too extreme, but asking students what they would like to change in their schools — especially those in later grades — is like asking someone inside the Matrix what would they change, if they haven’t been outside first to know they’re in one already!

    Try to send your students to work on projects in partnership with some companies where creativity, critical thinking and invention are important ingredients for success. Or even better, get few companies to help you organize and judge a competition where the students are expected to do something that requires teamwork & collaboration alongside creativity and critical thinking.

    Then ask the same students this same question and compare notes. That would be a list that is important to consider as these would be the people that have got out to taste the world outside and got back in to live inside for few more years. If they say all they need is couple of iPads, a field trip and better cafeteria, then we can call it a day and ask Sir Ken Robinson to stop burning all the fossil fuel and spewing carbon dioxide in the air in all his tours around the world!



    Posted by kima | December 12, 2010, 2:22 am
  6. If students are the customers, then we should take theses suggestions seriously. They can all be done and would entail little or no cost. Unfortunately, many educators see students as indentured servants. Too bad. Some of these may seem risky in the test oriented culture that we live in. Thanks for the great post.

    Posted by Douglas W. Green, EdD | December 12, 2010, 11:47 am
  7. bravo John.

    interesting thing.. over the last 5 years.. we’ve been asking the same. we’ve been surprised… things we think some want to get rid of – just as many want to keep. some teachers some want to get rid of – just as many want to keep. etc. so – we differentiate – to infinity. we personalize.
    but one answer almost everyone gave… community service as a part of every class/course/project.

    so it’s a shifting we’re after – a sorting out – so that everyone gets their choice. your school – design it.
    and the authenticity comes as we share what we learn with our community. as we learn from out community as we share.

    Posted by monika hardy | December 12, 2010, 2:46 pm
  8. As a student myself, I think schools should give students a little more freedom in the way they learn subjects from the start. I have a terrible fear of writing, but this may be because of how my elementary school approached the subject. I also believe that schools should stop giving “busy work,” because a ton of extremely easy homework problems take time away from the harder ones. I also believe that students should go at their own pace and be grouped by level instead of age. I also think we should be allowed to specialize a little earlier. I’m really interested in math, science, and music, but I’m not able to go as in depth as I want to.

    Posted by She Who Must Not Be Named | December 13, 2010, 7:19 pm
  9. John, All so reasonable, all so sensible. If only we listened more. And had more gardens at school. Thank you for this.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 13, 2010, 10:16 pm
  10. My students did a similar project last year. I asked 1st-5th graders what their dream school would look like. Much of what is on your list was on theirs. They also mentioned wanting choice of what type of chairs they sat in (they said our chairs are really uncomfortable). Nearly every student mentioned that their dream school would include an animal of some sort (dogs to read to-that wouldn’t make fun if they stumbled, fish to study, horses to ferry). Outdoor space was very important to them. It occurs to me what our students really want in all of this is the opportunity to feel human. To be outside, with animals, working, discovering, exploring, and to make decsions about when they eat, drink, go to the bathroom.

    Posted by ktenkely | December 14, 2010, 6:19 pm
  11. I think authenticity and autonomy are broad sweeping reforms given where we are, and your class deserves credit for championing them.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2010, 9:43 am
  12. @ktenkely: “It occurs to me what our students really want in all of this is the opportunity to feel human.” A simple yet brilliant statement. That captures it for me.

    Is it any wonder home schooling continues to grow? Home is in many ways the most humane of places and school, or school buses, the least.

    Posted by Mark Notess | December 15, 2010, 12:47 pm


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