Monday, March 30, 2015

Student-led Learning

     Is it rigorous enough? Does it meet the standards? Someone asked me those two questions during a  discussion about a student I had who had created her own unit of study. Instead of reading a novel, she wanted to research the women's suffrage movement, paralleling sexism with racism by studying the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Together we established learning goals for the unit to make sure she met the standards. There was more that she did, but you get the point.
     So you tell me? Was this student, who had a hard time attending school, more engaged during her self-designed unit of study? Well, if attendance is any indicator, yes. She never missed a day and hasn't missed any more since.
"National Association Against Woman Suffrage". Licensed under Public Domain
     We recently had parent-teacher conferences and guess who showed up with her mom? The mom was effusive in praise of her daughter's regular school attendance. The student piped up and said, "Well, Mrs. Z let's me learn the way I like to learn and study things I'm interested in. Of course I'll come to school then. It's not boring."
     It's actually nothing I did. I took a risk that this student would become more engaged by trying a different approach. I gambled because I figured what was there to lose? The gamble paid off.
     Self-directed study, inquiry-based learning, whatever the label the result, in my experience is the same. Students come away engaged and learning, satisfied that school is meaningful to them. Have I done this with every student who has problems with attending school? Unfortunately, no. But it is something I'm willing to try more regularly.
     Is student-directed learning less rigorous than what we devise in our lessons? Does it have to be? By giving students choice and freedom do we empower them to learn on their terms and what they want or encase them in expectations they could never meet?
     My answer to the colleague who posed the question about rigor? After describing the project, I asked her the same question. She shrugged and said, "I guess so." So maybe my colleague isn't quite ready to embrace self-directed, inquiry-based learning in her classroom. The question is, are we?

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