Freedom to learn

by Sarah Firisen

Rcp If there’s anything that we should have learned from the world events of the past couple of months it’s that the desire to be autonomous is a universal human one. Events in Egypt seem to show that when people feel empowered and can taste freedom, anything is possible. Perhaps this insight into the human psyche can be used to think more creatively about education.

I recently came across this blog piece by a 6th grade teacher discussing his school’s recent, inaugural Innovation Day during which all the 6th grade students were told, “that they would have an entire school day to learn about what they wanted and to create evidence of their learning in any way they chose.” The end result was over 200 learning projects made up of students working independently initially and then often merging into groups as they began to help each other with projects. One of the most telling findings that this teacher notes when answering the question, ‘Did you have any discipline issues with giving kids the freedom to day what they wanted for a whole day?’ was, ‘None! When you give kids a highly engaging activity that they choice in [sic] and buy into; behavior problems are nonexistent.’

Here’s the list of projects they chose to work on for that one day:

  • Writing and performing his own guitar solo
  • Creating a model out of wood of the Sears Tower
  • Writing her own historical fiction short story
  • Creating a Rube Goldberg machine
  • Designing and creating a replica suit of Roman Armor (out of tinfoil and cardboard)
  • Creating a how-to tutorial on baking a cake
  • Painting a still life on canvas of a nature scene
  • Writing and performing a one-man comedy act
  • Researching and presenting on the concentration camps of the Holocaust
  • Creating a video highlight reel of basketball moves and plays
  • Building a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • Creating a video documentary of Innovative Day
  • Building a model of Big Ben
  • Choreographing and performing a dance
  • Researching Walt Disney and creating a model of the Epcot Center
  • Creating a model of numerous World War II battles
  • Building a model of the Eiffel Tower
  • Researching and creating countless Power Points, posters, and Photo Stories

While there’s no doubt that some of these projects could be deemed to have more “educational value” than others, they all involved creativity, and as students began to work together, collaboration. Eighth graders at my children’s school, the Robert C. Parker School, spend a portion of the year researching and writing their eighth grade thesis project. The thesis can be on any topic that they choose, and last year these ranged from the evils of mass produced foods to the truth behind Woodstock; the increase in salaries in professional baseball to the Arthurian legend, with a whole range of interesting topics in between. The end results, reports that often run up to 20 pages or more of well-researched prose and a Powerpoint presentation on their theses that they present to students and parents, are better researched and written, and certainly longer than many college papers (and I’ve been told that by parents who are college professors.) The key point is that students get to work on a subject that interests them, that is empowering and the results are phenomenal, across the board.

An even more interesting idea that I read about recently is an experimental project that was run in a Western Massachusetts public school. For one semester 8 students, aged 15 to 17, designed and ran their own school. These students spanned the achievement and behavioral spectrum, ‘two were close to dropping out before they started the project, while others were honors students. ‘ And they didn’t just run this school within a school in name only, ‘Though they sought advice from English, math and science teachers, they were responsible for monitoring one another’s work and giving one another feedback. There were no grades, but at the end of the semester, the students wrote evaluations of their classmates.’ They also designed their own curriculum.

As Dr. Susan Engel, the piece’s author but also a developmental psychologist and the director of the William’s College Program in Teaching, writes, the results have been transformative. One ‘student who had once considered dropping out of school found he couldn’t bear to stop focusing on his current history question but didn’t want to miss out on exploring a new one. When he asked the group if it would be O.K. to pursue both, another student answered, “Yeah, I think that’s what they call learning.”’ Another student, ‘who had failed all of his previous math courses spent three weeks teaching the others about probability.’ Since the end of their project, the students have been absorbed back into the main school and curriculum, but the positive effects have not work off and all the students continue to do well.

I recently had a chance to hear Dr. Engel speak and I asked her whether she thought that this experimental project was scaleable. She argued that it absolutely thought was. She said that, since this piece was published, she’s been inundated with requests from all over the world from schools large and small who would like to start similar projects.

Even if this project isn’t scaleable and practical for most schools, doesn’t it show us something? Doesn’t it say something about how motivated, creative, curious and, at the end of the day, well educated students can be when they feel empowered and take some ownership of their educational experience? Some of this should be scaleable, shouldn’t it? Some of these learnings should inform the public education curriculum.

Children are naturally curious beings who want to explore and learn about the world around them. They are thirsty for experiences, for knowledge, for adventures. Somehow, we managed to make the educational experience for most children something that, not only doesn’t tap into this innate curiosity, it manages to drive it out of most children so that school becomes something dreaded and learning something boring and to be avoided wherever possible. By the time these children become adults, they’ve lost most of their curiosity, creativity and spirit of intellectual adventure and discovery. But clearly, it doesn’t have to be this way.