It’s the end of a semester, and the end of an experiment in my classroom that I’ve detailed in past posts. A short recap: I gave students the freedom to choose what they wanted to study (from a broad list of about 35 different topics, more choice than I had during any given semester while doing my MA), the freedom in how they responded to each topic, and the freedom to hand in their work throughout the semester – so long as it was finished by the end of the semester. Giddyup! (More details here.)
At this point I’m willing to call this experiment a success with a few provisos. First, the good. The writing I received from most students was far, far, FAR greater and more profound than I’ve seen from them… well, ever. (I teach in a small K-12 school and have the same students year after year.) This isn’t the difference between a grade 9 student and a grade 10 student, but leaps and bounds more sophisticated and more interesting than a simple year’s difference would indicate. One student chose to write a quasi-Lovecraftian story about a story that Christopher Columbus neglected to share with anybody else; another wrote a profound piece comparing Icarus’ arrogance to the behaviour of a teenager stealing his father’s truck and taking it for a joyride. I’ll admit that I never thought of Icarus’ and Daedalus’ relationship in this manner, and I learned something this semester. I love it when I learn something from a student!
Moreover, the short stories, poems, and essays that were written were almost error-free, and the students were excited about working – not every day, not every minute, but by and large they took the opportunity to write very seriously and produced risky, challenging, and engaging pieces that I enjoyed reading.
I can count on one hand the number of student-produced pieces that I personally enjoyed as a reader before this year.
Moreover, I received a higher level of engagement from the young men in my classes, the students who had been completely disengaged and almost completely unwilling to do anything in English last year. These guys worked harder than I had ever seen and produced pieces that were, again, much more advanced than last year, certainly more technically and qualitatively better than I would have expected.
There were a few drawbacks to this experiment. The first was my own frustration as a teacher while I was in class. I gave students most of the semester to work in-class, which gave me time to work one-on-one with students and help those who were struggling. At least, that was the plan. Very few students took the opportunity to conference with me during school, and I was left either sitting at my desk marking other assignments or futilely circling the classroom offering my services. They mostly chose to email me their questions, occasionally late at night after I had already gone to bed — and they needed answers NOW because they were working on an assignment and didn’t want to work for two hours and find out that they were doing it wrong!
Second drawback was classroom management issues. Gone were the frustrations of watching students interrupt me during a lecture, but in its place were students who were not using their class time wisely! They played games on their iPhones, talked, surfed the net, facebooked, and generally spent far too much time (in my opinion) goofing off instead of working. Every teacher instinct in my body cried out for me to correct this errant behaviour, but instead I pulled myself back and let them work it out themselves. Micromanaging students, although pleasant (ha!), doesn’t result in students learning how to motivate themselves. I saw this coming and mentioned it in my last post, but knowing and experiencing this are two profoundly different animals: one is meandering off in the distance, and I can just make them out playfully leaping and galloping out of the corner of my eye. The other, experiencing this occasional lack of motivation, is staring me in the face, breathing heavily right in front of my nose.
No, I didn’t just call my students “animals.” That was a metaphor.
These two drawbacks were minor. The final drawback, on the other end of the spectrum, was that a handful of students didn’t finish the course, and one student (sadly) turned in a portfolio consisting solely of work pulled from the internet. We’re a small school, and as a staff we’re able to catch problems early, rally around students, and pull them to the finishing line, sometimes with the students kicking and screaming. This time, there was no safety net, and some kids failed. I’m not happy about this, but I know that failing a course isn’t the end of the world. Moreover, most of these students knew that they hadn’t finished, and negotiated with me an extension into February, particularly those slated to graduate in June and wanted to walk across the stage with the students with whom they had schooled for the past twelve years. I don’t want to sweep away this drawback, but I’m cognizant as an educator that students do fail, that some students aren’t ready or willing to be intrinsically motivated. That’s okay. One of my students didn’t do any work last year when I taught her in a very traditional English classroom, and she didn’t do anything this semester, either. It’s the nature of the beast.
The whole experience was profoundly different than anything else I had done as an educator, and it’s made me realise that, particularly in senior high, students do not need a teacher in front of them to learn. What an obvious conclusion, and one that I had previously believed, but now I have the case studies to back up my belief. Imagine the ramifications: if students don’t need a teacher standing in front of them, lecturing at them for every minute of class time and then asking them to spit back the answers on a test, what could we do to schools to make them more efficient?
In my school division, we have fifteen schools. Six of those have senior high students, with populations ranging from 60 (that’s us!) to upwards of 400. If we were to expand this pilot project to the entire school division, we would only need perhaps three full-time senior high English teachers, down from ten or more. If all content was delivered electronically, and if these three teachers spent their time working one-on-one with students either locally or using telecommunications technologies (Skype, Facetime, telephone, email, instant messaging, even faxes), then this reduction would be completely possible.
It’s my belief that we could absolutely start designing schools and school divisions around the principle of drop-in centres of learning – the Netflix of education, if you will, as opposed to cable TV. (This is perhaps less offensive than the metaphor in my title, “the learning trough”, but then again I live in a rural community and a good percentage of my students do feed farm animals before they come to school in the morning…) Other schools are operating like this today. What will it take to start shifting education into the future, instead of clinging to ages-old models of learning that are ineffective, clunky, and not reflective of how people learn?