I have considered myself to be a constructivist educator for a few years now. I believe that it is important for students to develop their own knowledge and construct their own meaning from what we do in class. Up until recently this applied only to the material that I delivered to them. My process has been to create an overall thematic outline for my year (for example, this year was Past, Present and Future) and select curricular outcomes from the curriculum document, tie those to current events or events in recent history and then develop activities and projects around those. I expect my students to take the information that I present them with, ask questions about it and find something within what we have done together that they care about and wish to explore further. This usually leads to an Inquiry project and a presentation of what they have learned. Overall, in the past three years this formula for constructivist teaching has worked fairly well. I am sending students that can question their world and seek understanding on their own into highschool and that has been my main objective. What I have not considered in this process is student voice. I chose the theme. I chose the Outcomes. I chose the topics. I chose the activities. I choose what’s important. They chose the final project. After reading Alison Cook-Sather’s article Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education, I am beginning to reconsider my process.
Cook Sather says that listening to student voices in school “can help teachers make what they teach more accessible to students” and that “when students are taken seriously and attended to as knowledgeable participants in important conversations, they feel empowered and motivated to participate constructively in their education.” (p. 3) In theory, I agree fully with this and I have to say that having my students help me decide what we will do in the course of a year has crossed my mind and my teaching partners (two other 7/8 teachers) and I have considered it. It would make learning more meaningful for the students and I really do think that it would be in their best educational interest but there are many questions that I have about the logistics and realities of undertaking such a huge shift in the way my student’s experience school that have not been answered or even addressed. Until I can find some solutions to the questions and concerns that I have, I am not sure that I am ready to embark on such a task.
Here are my questions and concerns:
- All of my students come to me with a perception of what school and learning looks like as they have already been experiencing it for 6-7 years. Already my constructivist approach to learning and lack of “teach to a test” methods sends some students reeling for another more traditional teacher. I am afraid that if I started the year by saying “what would you like to learn about this year?” some kids that thrive in traditional routines would crumble. Even those that would eventually thrive in this kind of framework would take an adjustment period to get used to the idea that they have a say in what they learn. Inevitably, I am sure that we would start off by having suggestions that were not plausible like “all Bieber, all the time” or “let’s just play World of Warcraft all day, I learn lots on there” so they would need to be made aware of the curriculum documents that I am legally bound to. Introducing them to that daunting document would scare them all away but would be necessary. Even if one were to change the outcomes to something more child friendly, they still look incredibly boring. So, my question is how would we transition students from a traditional school framework to one where they have a voice without overwhelming them?
- My next concern comes into play once I have established with my students that they will have a voice in their learning. Once I present them with the idea that they can choose, what questions would I need to ask them about what they would like to see in their day-to-day learning? How much voice can they have? Would I chose the curricular outcomes and present them with the choices of topics or direction that those outcomes could take us? What happens after they chose the direction? Do they then go on to select activities, ways of demonstrating their knowledge (that is one of the things that they have choice in right now in my class) and assessment methods as well? How would we find time to do all of this? Would we plan the whole year all at once or one topic at a time and see where it takes us? What happens if they do not like what they have chosen, do they have the option to change it? So many logistical questions. I am usually all for jumping in with two feet and trying new things but I am afraid of how the students and their parents would feel about being my education reform guinea pigs.
- My third question is again another logistical question but because it is so daunting to me I think it deserves its own point. Inevitably, not all students are going to agree on what is learned. So whose voices do I choose to listen to and who’s get’s ignored? Do I allow groups of students to go off in their own directions based on what they would like to learn and if so how do I manage this without over working and over burdening myself? Is this where working with other teachers could become most useful where we have homerooms and student move around between teachers based on the direction that they would like to go?
As I write this, my head screams Yes! Yes! This would be an incredible way to structure school, begin next year, just do it and figure it out as you go. I find it all very exciting and inspirational but I would like to learn from teachers and students that have tried this and have some advice to help answer all of my questions and concerns and I just have not found anything that talks about it. Cook-Sather says
When students have the opportunity to articulate their perspectives on school, they not only offer insights into that schooling that are valuable for educators. They also have an opportunity to home their own thinking-to think metacognitively and critically about their educational experiences. And as a result of this newly gained perspective and investment, students not only feel more engaged but are also inclined to take more responsibility for their education because it is no longer something being done to them but rather something they do.” (p. 10)
School reform of this manner would also allow the students to take into consideration their own experiences and stories that they bring with them on the first day of class. They could expand on what they already know and have experienced and this alone would make teaching and learning in this manner plausible in any classroom within any demographic and any situation regardless of ability etc. It seems so ideal, so why is it not being done? Would all teachers have the same questions and concerns as me and if so, why are they not being addressed and who should be addressing them? Me? Is that why I am in grad school? To question and seek answers? Maybe I need to. Maybe next year should be a project… oh dear, what have I started?
If anyone has answers or advice for me regarding my questions, please comment!
Article reference: Alison Cook-Sather. Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education. Educational Researcher. Vol 31. No. 4 (May, 2002) pp. 3-14