We talk a lot about “student agency” in these parts. But to be honest, most of what we label with those words are tepid substitutes for the real thing. As I Tweeted the other day, if these are the stories we’re writing in major education publications, the bar is set really low.
So, Thursday I sat in on a panel presentation that featured two students from Olin College of Engineering and two more from Hampshire College. The title was “Program Improvement Through Student Engagement,” which didn’t sound all that captivating. But since I’d heard about Olin a number of times, and since I had a younger family member who had just finished at Hampshire, and since my own presentation was scheduled for the next session in the room next door, I settled in to listen.
Really glad that I did.
For those not familiar with these two schools, they are outliers in the university narrative. Both give students almost total choice over the subjects they study and the ways the study them, to the point where kids create their own majors and most of their coursework. The kids at Hampshire then document their work in a digital portfolio, one of which you can see here. Dig around…it’s pretty interesting, and it will make you think about the possibilities. (This blog post is indicative of the work being done in the program.)
The Olin students shared their work to redesign their school library, and they both talked about how immersed they were in the work. But it was when they started talking about “The Olin Effect” that I got really interested:
The Olin Effect:
“The heightened state of engagement, creativity, and productivity that comes from taking control of your own education.”
I quickly snapped a picture of their slide and started creating a slide of my own to drop into my keynote (which, at that point, started in about 20 minutes.)
I found it interesting that one of the students from Olin said that what both amazed him and what he appreciated the most was the level of trust that he received from his teachers and his fellow students. He said it was without question the foundation for the good work that he and his team did.
At the end, I asked the panel whether or not they had had the experience of “taking control of your own education” before they got to their respective colleges. The two from Hampshire both came from very traditional settings in high school, but the two Olin kids said that they came from smaller schools that were somewhat innovative in their approach. Still, they hadn’t been granted the amount of freedom and agency that they found when they went to college. I followed up with “Would you have like to have had that in high school?” and they both said something to the effect of “Um…absolutely!”
When I got to the Olin part of my own presentation, since much of my talk was about student agency, I asked my audience how many of them had ever experienced “The Olin Effect,” that flow and good work that comes out of doing something you really care about. Something that you CHOOSE to work on. Almost every hand went up. And then I made the point that everyone of us also encounters The Olin Effect when we’re like five and six years old and we’re in charge of our own explorations of the world. That time when the adults look at us and marvel at how intense and creative and persistent we are with our own learning. There’s not one among us who hasn’t lived it. And, importantly, there’s not a kid in our schools who hasn’t lived it at some point and who can’t live it again, given the freedom to do so.
But that’s the problem, right? “The Olin Effect” is the exception that happens when the conditions for powerful learning truly exist: freedom, choice, relevance, audience, passion, etc. In schools, unfortunately, it’s not the rule.
So here’s an idea. Make your own poster like the one above, but instead of “Olin,” put the name of your school in its place. And then figure out what you need to do to make your own students feel “The heightened state of engagement, creativity, and productivity that comes from taking control of your own education.”
I mean, seriously. Why wouldn’t we do that?
Jim Benz says
The Peninsula School Effect! My school in Menlo Park, CA does this very thing with students from nursery through eighth grade. Student engagement is very high. Fifth through Eighth graders decide what and how much work they do on assignments. Optional homework. No grades but lots of feedback.
How do you tackle re-engaging learners who are acclimated to the current system of working to the assessments and doing just enough to get by?
In theory I’m in a perfect position to try this – we teach learners who haven’t really engaged with traditional education so are on a vocational course with no real curriculum and the only aim being to get them in a suitable position for work, college or apprenticeship by whatever means work.
So I’ve experimented with offering these 16-17 year old learners free choice of something to learn several times, using different approaches but never really succeeded – we tend to reach a point when they’re very quickly bored with what they’ve chosen or they stop once they encounter something difficult or end up handing in scrappy work which doesn’t reflect the actual time or learning done.
I read these kinds of posts and feel all inspired to try again but I end up feeling like everyone else just has differently wired learners to mine. Like everyone else’s learners are suddenly magically motivated and productive once turned loose whereas mine watch cat videos all day or else read the first few links on Google about their chosen topic and then lose interest or else claim they “can’t think of anything” they want to learn in the first place…
Where are all the stories of, “how learners didn’t really ‘get’ this change at first and then improved after we did X, Y and Z and it took THIS long for them to adapt and now we do THAT from the beginning to make it work better”
I need something more detailed than “Let them choose what to learn”.
Is anyone else struggling with this?
Carolyn Foote says
Will–Thanks for sharing. Inspiring. I think in regards to the question above–developing habits of mind for inquiry after students haven’t experienced an inquiry centered environment takes time and intention.
For kids, asking questions may be easy, but by the time students get older, they are less likely to. And when they aren’t used to it, it takes a lot of practice, encouragement, and engagement to help it become more habitual. One of the models I like to use is Carol Kuhlthau’s Research Process model–she observed stages students go through when doing research and what feelings and thoughts they have during the process. It’s helpful because she points out stages where students feel the most stress–want to give up–and where they need the most support or scaffolding.
Some strategies I think are successful involve a lot of personal conferencing as students begin developing their questions. Methods like write-arounds help them start engaging with ideas at the beginning. Immersing themselves in readings is another way to start building curiosity.
Having student inquiry groups is another way to help them support one another–having someone they can bounce ideas off of. In “real life” — we all discuss our ideas with others, bounce ideas off of our friends, and tinker around the edges for awhile.
Time is another critical piece to students really developing and processing ideas. Too often we are in a rush to cover content, instead of letting students uncover what they need to know.
Thanks Will for sharing this. It is great to know that when people ask–will students experience this in college–that yes, it is possible.
Those who are interested in helping students become stronger self-directed learners should check out the Agile Learning Network: http://agilelearningcenters.org.
Interesting model, but still, for me doesn’t tackle the “how do you CHANGE to this model” question.
“Kids are natural learners” – yeah – but by the time they’re teenagers who’ve loathed education to date they natural “consumers” more than learners.
I hope you are talking to colleges when you ask folks to make these changes. I’ve seen your presentations before and have actually asked you the exact same question about your concepts and ideas versus realities of real-life colleges. I am glad you have finally found a college like this so you can better answer the question – what colleges are even like this?? From a high school perspective, it’s nice to see that a college like Olin allows students to explore and prepare in their own way, but obviously, and based on your own reaction, they are the rarest of the rare. As high schools prepare our students for college, we have to realize that almost all colleges are not like Olin. Our kids still need to take the “required” classes in college, even though they may know exactly what they want to do as a career. We can change what we do in elementary and high schools, but we cannot forget that we are also preparing our students for what is next in their lives. Olin might have it right in your opinion, but who else does? Perhaps that’s your point.
Brian Crosby says
Sounds like the Foxfire Approach: http://www.foxfirefund.org/teach.html
I was actually able to teach that way for a few years in the mid/late 90’s. It was awesome.
The Core Practices of The Foxfire Approach
1. From the beginning, learner choice, design and revision infuse the work teachers and learners do together.
2. The work teachers and learners do together clearly manifests the attributes of the academic disciplines involved, so that those attributes become habits of mind.
3. The work teachers and students do together enables learners to make connections between the classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond their communities.
4. The teacher serves as facilitator and collaborator.
5. Active learning characterizes classroom activities.
6. The learning process entails imagination and creativity.
7. Classroom work includes peer teaching, small group work, and teamwork.
8. The work of the classroom serves audiences beyond the teacher, thereby evoking the best efforts by the learners and providing feedback for improving subsequent performances.
9. The work teachers and learners do together includes rigorous, ongoing assessment and evaluation.
10. Reflection, an essential activity, takes place at key points throughout the work.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for that, Brian.
Always interesting to me when we say “active learning.” Can learning be “inactive?” Do we really learn anything if we’re not actively engaged? Isn’t that just inherent in a definition of learning?