CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Sidereel

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with some of my uber-talented sixth grade students. We were talking about school life (amidst the music and occasional ping pong game and mini-dance party) and they also began blogging their thoughts about what their ideal school would look like. Common themes: more social time, less structure, more freedoms, more interest-specific explorations.

One thing that struck me as interesting was a response when I asked, “How do you think your teacher decides what to teach you?”

Very thoughtfully, the student replied, “IΒ never really thought about that! I don’t think she decides. I think it comes from the higher-ups. It’s not like teachers have the freedom to say, Okay, we’re going to learn about candy today!”

So. Do our students indeed view the teacher as the imparter-of-knowledge? Or do they view the teacher as a mechanism through which someone else decides what’s important for children to learn?

I followed up. “Do you think teachers should ask you what you want to learn about?”

“I think some people wouldn’t take it seriously and would just be joking about it.”

“But if that was the norm. If, every day, you came into class knowing you could explore the topics that most interested you. How would that go?”

With that thought in mind, she began describing how she’d center her daily learning experiences around theatrics and drama…there would be role-playing, acting, performing, and creation. Because, in her words, she was going to be “the world’s greatest actress.”

What can we do to promote this passion-driven learning in our schools? How can we, as administrators, help children find that which they love and involve them in their learning experiences that promote, celebrate, and honor those passions?

Not many of us can resist reaching into a bowl of sugary sweet candy goodness. Let’s work to make our children’s learning experiences just as irresistible.

19 comments on “Knowledge candy

  • Lyn,

    Enjoyed reading the post. I think too often kids view learning in school as something that is being done “to” them rather than something they are participating in. Recently we started donig Innovative Days at my school. Students come in and choose what they want to learn about. They have the freedom and the entire day to discover and learn about what interests them. This is great because it is a day completely focused on learning which is what school is supposed to be anyway.

    I wonder what my students would say if I asked them why I teacher what I teach…

    • Exactly, Josh, I’ve heard the same thing said about teacher professional development. We don’t want learning to be one shot and done, and we don’t want it to happen to a group of passive recipients. We need to help our students be active in the learning process! I love the idea of Innovative Days! I am so excited to meet your students next week when we Skype in our Grade 2 class! πŸ™‚

  • Lyn – You make a great point here. Just as we the educators want to have the autonomy and freedom to teach our class how we would like, students also desire the freedom to follow their passions and interests. When I teach and introduce a concept or topic that really interests me, students can see my passion, and as such they are inspired and motivated. As you said, imagine a world were students bring that energy and passion toward learning on a daily basis…that is scary cool!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Justin, I think it’s great you’re displaying your passion about learning and modeling that energy for your students. I wonder how often students sit in the “audience” and observe a teacher who just goes through the motions, day in and day out? That thought makes me sad. I agree we need to help our students be self-directed in their learning, and we can do so by creating conditions that foster autonomy and allow for risk-taking and mistakes to be made. Thanks for commenting!

  • As along-time school administrator who is now working at Central Office, I have seen both ends of the spectrum. The limitations put on teachers are sometimes self-imposed. Over the years I can recall several conversations with staff members encouraging them to get messy with the learning…get creative, involve the students, come at it a different way. Sometimes the response is “I’m not allowed to do that, it’s Math.” Of course, I asked, “who says you can’t.” As the conversation evolved the teacher realized that they were only limited by their own imagination.

    I think as leaders we have to make it okay to grab some candy…and when the candy gets sticky we have to come in with support….the “hard“ of leadership is to create the structures that allow teachers to help their students explore and the “soft“ is to support them when things go sideways.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for commenting, Tom. I agree that sometimes teachers are overly cautious and treat curriculum and pacing guides like “law.” They are intimidated by the thought of relinquishing control in that respect, so I’ve been working to encourage my teachers to think differently this year. I do believe a curriculum guide is a valuable tool, but it’s just that- a tool. Use it to guide, not to impose limitations on learning. Love your hard and soft candy analogies! Making me hungry for a sweet treat. Thanks for your thoughts! πŸ™‚

  • Lyn,

    What about starting with a week where teachers and students study something they are passionate about. I see independent schools and universities doing this all the time with things like January/Winter terms or field study weeks. I feel like it’s a way to dip your toe in.

    Incidently I was talking about this with a colleague and I was relaying my own elementary school experience. I was lucky enough to be part of a program called divergent activities program (DAP). As a group, we got to choose our units of study during the fall and then in the spring would explore a topic of our choosing with the intent to present to all the other DAP kids across the district. In three years I built a replica suit of armor, built a trireme (greek war ship) to scale, and organized a running race and training program for other kids. All in 4-6th grade. Needless to say I have fond memories and wish I could have continued to learn that way throughout my educational career. These things work! (ok, long winded rambling done)

    • Pete, DAP sounds fantastic. I am loving that idea. We have been toying around with next year’s schedule, to include a free choice activity time where students could explore their passions, and teachers could share their areas of expertise with students. I really hope we can make it work. I know certain segments of our student population have been privy to this time of individualized, project-based learning, but frankly all of our students deserve that same opportunity. I can tell you’re all the better for it. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your comments!

  • Sometimes teachers just feel they need permission from administrators, just like sometimes students just feel they need permission from teachers. Our desire to do what’s best is sometimes slowed down by real or perceived pressure from “above.” Teachers likely ask students what they want to learn about as frequently as administrators ask teachers what they want to teach about. Thanks for the reminder that we all need to move forward instead of waiting for permission. What’s the worst thing that could happen, right? By the way, I hope you’re making that Facebook page happen for your school.

    • I think you’re right in that it’s both real and perceived pressures that can hold back some of the freedoms in the classroom. I had a talk with some teachers today who were expressing their perceived need to “cover” everything in the curriculum guide. That’s just an impossible task. They marveled at the luxury of being able to give their students freedom over what they’re learning, and I know that as a result of our conversation today, they will begin to explore options for doing so in their classroom. Thanks for your comments, Tom! (And as soon as the Facebook page is up and running, I’ll send you the link. πŸ™‚

    • I actually had a teacher look at me in shock when I told her to skip over some of the curriculum that was irrelevant or outdated. She really did need me to come rigt out and sayit. I thougth she was going to ask me to sign off on it too!

      Teachers – just go for it! And beg for forgiveness later.

      • Kyle, isn’t it a little scary when we encounter a situation such as the one you described, where a teacher feels he/she must stick to a guide or recommendation or program simply because they don’t feel they have the freedom to follow their instincts? I hate to think of our teachers are robots, simply going through the motions. Empowerment is so important. Thanks for your comments!

  • Great thoughts! I love reading about your interactions with students. I often find that while yes we have curriculum to cover, we can find common ground between the “higher-up” curriculum and curiosity through questioning. If we can truly implement the inquiry process by asking thought provoking questions, students will become engaged at higher levels. Furthermore, if we can promote the same quality questioning from our students so that they are highly engaged and constructing knowledge with intense ownership I think I’d feel like the kid in the candy store!

    • Jasmine, I completely agree there is always “common ground,” and it will vary along the continuum depending on the needs of the students and teachers. We have to trust our teachers, the experts, and give them the freedom to hone their craft to benefit our students and their learning. Thanks for your comments!

  • Hi Lyn,

    I’ve been following your tweets for a while, but this is the first time I’ve stopped in at your blog. The questions you were asking your student made me think of an Episode of This American life I heard recently called Kid Politics. The whole thing is good, but Act Three is called Minor Authorities and it is about the Brooklyn Free School, where students make all of the decisions. You might enjoy it: Kid Politics/a>.

    Thanks,
    Katy

  • One of my 2nd graders walked up to me during class today… I honestly thought she was going to ask me if she could use the restroom! She said, “Mrs. Baldwin, I want to be a great singer when I grow up.” πŸ™‚ I told her that would be awesome.

    I have her for 3 more years. Will her dreams change? Maybe. I just hope that they don’t change because someone tells her that she’s wrong to dream like that.

    Thanks for a great post, Lyn.

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