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Learning at its Best

When Students Direct their Learning, Teaching is Flipped on its Head

from an experience on 9.25.12

After breakfast this morning, I made my way to the computer room, a central location in the “downstairs”, or k-6 part of The Free School (AFS). I was prepared to try an approach to conducting a drawing lesson suggested by quite a few of the AFS staff. I arrived with my art bag of supplies and a newsprint pad, a then assembled a still life from mugs and jars in the area. The art teacher, Shelly, gave me more drawing resources, such as clipboards, erasers, paper, and a student pack of drawing pencils. I rested two pieces of my past work on a nearby couch and began drawing.

My goal for this activity was to piqué interest in drawing instruction, and it worked.* Within minutes I had students coming up to me asking, “What are you doing?” After the initial “watcha doin?” questions, they asked to join in.

When students have real choice in their learning pursuits, your role as a teacher changes immensely. At AFS, as in many democratic schools, students choose their course schedules from a young age. Certain essentials such as the reading program are a given for younger students. But beyond that, the main requirement asked of them is that if they sign up to be in a class, they attend nearly every session. This is for the sake of valuing both the students’ and teachers’ time. Any classes or activities offered outside of the set weekly schedule call for a different method of gaining student enrollment, like my ad hoc drawing classes.

The teachers  are the ones that intrigue students to be in class, as opposed to students being placed there by mandate of the teachers. I have learned that there are times even with scheduled classes, when students don’t feel ready to take part for that day. They have the choice to leave after other issues were checked out and the student is still uncomfortable. There are many reasons that AFS works this way.

There are so many ways that the kids can sculpt their time through imaginative games, academic and strategy games, conversations, and organized field trips. These are things that are guaranteed to be fun and can help them learn both academic skills, and skills that contribute to growth and maturity. So if you’re offering a class, it competes with that beloved time, and as a teacher you need to prove to them why taking your class is also enjoyable. I’ll admit that this was initially frustrating. I was used to this belief that students will always flock to a class because hey, what else is there to do? This is the traditional model of scarcity, which argues that without constant structured tasks, kids will never gravitate toward personal and intellectual growth. It’s an invalid belief that they just don’t have the capacity to do anything meaningful with their time. In the “21st century” politicians’ model of scarcity, the premise is that if students fail to have constant structured tasks and instruction, they’ll be unfit for plugging into the workforce as adults.

Now that my “faith” so to speak has been challenged in this regard, I am hoping to do more on-the-spot drawing lessons, in the hopes that I will have room for an ongoing drawing course.



2 thoughts on “When Students Direct their Learning, Teaching is Flipped on its Head

  1. The idea of allowing students to choose what and how they learn can have an incredible impact on how interested and engaged they are. It’s nice to see someone willing to give students a choice like this!

    Posted by MediaCAST (@MediaCASTstream) | October 17, 2012, 5:07 pm
  2. So true, Zuleika. And we got a chance to see some of the behind-the-scenes as to how this works during our visit on the 20th. Great ideas that need to spread to other schools!

    Posted by Prof. Jen Powers | October 25, 2012, 1:06 pm

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