Student Experiences and an Experiment

I started reading The International Handbook for Elementary and Secondary Student Experiences. This “handbook”–a whopping 900 page collection of research on the topic, is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ll be writing on this again, for sure, as I get more in depth, but it looks like I’m finding more direction in my research. 

Why don’t we ask students what they want to learn? –> Student agency –> Self-directed learning –> Student choice –> student experiences of school.

I’m on track. The right one? We’ll see. Here’s an experiment that I would like to carry out, though.

Think of your favorite teacher in either elementary or high school. In one paragraph, I want you to write a first person account from the perspective of that person, what they do as a teacher. Try and be as all-encompassing as possible without going into too much description.

Now, think of the teacher you hated the most in high school. Complete the same exercise as described above.

I would be really interested to see whether or not the former-student perceptions of their teachers changes when they think of their best and their worst experiences with teachers. It would be fun to do this with curent high-school students, too. Woo! Research!

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2 thoughts on “Student Experiences and an Experiment

  1. Pat Hanley says:

    I can think of two reasons not to ask kids what they want to learn. Maybe these aren’t the reasons that led to the current situation, but they’re reasons nonetheless.

    1. If we let children decide what is taught in schools (they are, after all, free to learn about whatever they want outside of school) we are putting a lot of control of a child’s future into his own hands (adding whatever kids want will require removing something else; few children will choose math over, say, dance, and an adult who can’t dance will face a much smaller set of consequent difficulties than an adult who can’t do math). It is usually uncontroversial that children do not know enough to make certain decisions, so why would we give them the power to decide on the development of knowledge itself? Kids just don’t know enough to know where the gaps are in their knowledge, so their chosen courses of study are unlikely to be very fruitful. Universities don’t even really let people decide what to study until the Master’s level (sometimes not even then). You usually get to pick courses (but not always), but the courses and their content are the reflections of what experts think is valuable to know about those fields. Is this a violation of “student agency” or an indirect, depersonalized form of mentorship?

    2. It is not fair to students to have teachers who do not know what they are talking about, and so when one student wants to learn the philosophy of time and another wants to learn Indonesian dance and another wants to learn about breeding flowers (less optimistically, swap in “hockey, weapons, and the history of One Direction”) it imposes an unfulfillable expectation of expertise on the teacher and inspires that unrealistic expectation in the student. If the solution to this problem is to have the teacher serve as some sort of research guide, the students are doing in school what they can do on their own (which is perhaps an argument for abolishing schools, but not for keeping them around to foster student agency). If the teacher’s job is to guide student interests rather than being guided by them (ie: “No more Eminem biographies. What about Auden? He was like a rapper!) then we’re back to the curricular canon, only this time with the charade that students asked for it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Pat. I don’t have a plan for a specific curriculum in place. I think that’s a bit ambitious at this point, but it does open up good discussion, this like one.

      1. I don’t argue that students should be let loose upon the world to make sense of it in any way they want, without guidance. There is always a responsibility for the more experienced to lead the less experienced with direction. (I originally wrote “the right direction” but erased it… I’m not sure we can say there is a “right” direction). That’s something that irks me with learning models that let students roam free without support.

      My question, to take your example, is how can we make a clear delineation between choosing to study math and choosing to study dance? As if the choice is a dichotomy. If students were to choose dance as an area of interest that they would like to explore, there is a lot of potential to study good math and physics problems originating from dance. If they pursue it with a sense of business acumen, there’s a lot of math that could be looked at there, too. My thought is that, while students might have a burning drive to answer questions, they may not always know the right questions to ask, or, how to ask the right question, or how to go about answering the question once they have it. (Neither do adults, some times, but I digress.) To help them come to conclusions has always been, to a certain degree, the role of a teacher. But to tell students how they should learn math, science, English, dance, to tell them that there is a conclusion, and here is what it is, is discomforting. It assumes too much, including that the teacher knows what is valuable in the field.

      I agree that the already-established thoughts on a subject by experts is valuable. But kids in secondary school don’t know why it is valuable, and I think in having them answer the question for themselves could lead to impressive gains in creativity, innovation, and even self-concept, with the confidence that emerges from them completing a process of inquiry from start to finish. If there is anything I’ve learned from being in a school it’s that students value direct, personal mentorship far more than an indirect, depersonalized approach. If our current approach is the latter, and we know that there are students suffering because of it, doesn’t the former beg to be explored as well?

      2. You and I both know that there are thousands of teachers that stand in front of classrooms every day and talk about what they don’t know. It’s more beneficial to students that they’re told up front that the teacher doesn’t know everything, but, that they’d be more than happy to point them in the another direction (hopefully away from One Direction) or to another person that might be able to answer their questions better. This isn’t new. Education policy is shifting to reflect a “teacher as facilitator” approach. That implies classrooms of inquiry, research, and a letting-go of teacher power. But we aren’t told what that means, how to do it. Instead it’s supposed to be superimposed on top of what’s we’ve come to know as the norms of teaching.

      I’m not sure if what it would take would be to abolish schools. They have potential to develop a real sense of community. They can do the opposite, too, of course. I’m not sure that students can do it on their own? Can anyone develop knowledge on their own? Sorry if that sounds lofty. Students in particular, though, might not know how to conduct good research, or what constitutes an informed opinion, or they don’t have the social skills to interact with people well enough to find answers to their questions, or a lot of other reasons. Maybe what I’m getting at, then, is a reformed agenda of what a school needs to be in light of a shift in technology.

      Either way, thanks for the comment! Knocking any dents in my thinking are welcome and appreciated!

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