By Scott Sterling
Teachers should not be the masters of the educational experience of their students. Students should have just as much input into what goes on in the room, especially in the later stages of the learning process.
An excellent way to give students this control is through allowing them a certain measure of autonomy in selecting their learning tasks. Perhaps you will have to provide guidelines, but they are much more likely to be engaged with their learning if they’re studying something of interest to them.
The student-directed learning process starts with one question that can be applied to any topic or skill studied in a curriculum:
What are your initial questions and/or predictions about this content?
Every student has interests that are unique to them. Once they have a firm enough grasp on the new information, they should be able to apply that information to their interests in the outside world.
For example, a student may be supremely interested in baseball. Luckily, when he or she is taking a statistics course, the teacher allows the class to apply their learning however they see fit. They have a question about previous statistics being able to predict future success on the baseball field. Over the course of the curriculum, the student who loves baseball designs statistical models that predict a batter’s or pitcher’s success throughout a season using the general content learned in class.
That student comes away much more engaged with their learning than if they simply worked on problems out of the textbook.
This process is not just applicable to statistics classes. They can be used across the subject areas. Here are a few ideas:
Problems abound in literature. Wherever there are problems, there are also hypotheses and solutions. Students can create writing or presentation tasks that show how they would approach the problems of a certain character or non-fiction subject.
Tasks that call for investigation work well in the social sciences. Perhaps students have questions about how certain big concepts (demographic changes, voting results, historical precedent, etc.) have an effect on their individual lives. Tracking down the information that backs up their hypotheses provides the rigor.
Obviously, the scientific method is organized around the concept of hypothesizing and testing ideas. To bring more of a student element into their learning tasks, think of ways where the work being done in their experiments applies to their outside world.
The most common question students will have about a foreign land will probably be how different a student’s life is there compared to in their own area. Again, this only takes some investigation to answer any questions they might come up with for themselves. Presenting their findings can add another layer of rigor.
Too often, the tasks involved in the arts are already prescribed to the students. They perform plays written by other people and study art from previous artists. Instead, encourage students to develop their own perspectives on the works of others. Their hypotheses will often be in the form of “What if (artist) was alive during this time instead?” Guide them toward finding the answer.
If students are encouraged to investigate their own thoughts and problems, a technology program can act much like an incubator. Students come into courses like computer science looking to code the next great app. Once they have the skills down, push them toward identifying the problems and possible solutions that they are interested in solving.
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