Giving Students the Right Amount of Power and Autonomy Part 3: The End

In case you’re still interested, here’s a couple things to keep in mind in the end of a project or unit.

  1. Have students defend their process, and
  2. Weigh out mastery, momentum, and student investment.

Have students defend their process. 

When students have the chance to create their own vision and product, they also have a lot of opportunities  to get lost.  In the end, the logic and decision-making involved in their process is just as important as the success or failure of their outcome.

Steps of a process can be structured using specific questions, new information students gathered, and decisions students make based on those decisions.

So, for example, if a group (perhaps older students) want to build a small bridge that can carry the weight of a seven year old, they might start their process with questions like:

-How much does this seven year old weigh?

-What kind of bridge do we want to build?

-What math/physics/architecture do we need to know to build our bridge?

-What language do we need to know to google/research information to help us?

-What are good resources where we should start?

-What is our budget?

-How long should our bridge be?

With these questions students can prioritize their next steps and then start building.

Each step and piece of information gives students a new chance to pivot and refine their plan.

When students begin building, their questions might change to:

-Why isn’t this working?

-Will it work if we do this?

-Why does it work when we do this?

-How do we figure out what isn’t working?

In the age of information, with every known fact available at our fingertips, the most valuable and distinct habit of successful students will likely be a persistent quest for the right questions, direct questions. Questions help us to structure and refine our process, distill information, pinpoint problems, and communicate effectively. Progressive questioning makes learning active and creative. The students who are continually questioning each detail absorb the most, learn the fastest, and contribute the most.

Students can defend their process by explaining the questions in their process and the information they gathered. Against teacher and peer examination, students can defend the decisions they made each step of the way.

One important component of this process is failure.  Discuss it explicitly with students, because in a freeform project, students will likely deal with some failure at some point in their process.  What did they learn from this?  What can they do differently or better next time?  If they’re motivated, students generally learn much more from failure than from success.

Weigh out mastery, momentum, and student investment. 

One thing I really love about Khan Academy is the idea that the time a student takes to learn something is not fixed. Khan asserts that time, and not mastery, should be the variable.  In other words, if it takes you a long time to learn something, that’s ok; but in the age of online learning, every student should be given the time to master every concept.

That said, sometimes asking a student to work on a skill for a few more days, hours, or even minutes, can seem like a punishment.

I think this is part of the reason so many people dislike math- it’s force fed to students over and over even when they are bored and exhausted.

When it’s time to test a student’s project or knowledge and they just aren’t there yet, you can take inventory of their investment in the material. If they’re passionate or hanging on, you can give them some more time.

If students have that dread, when they’ve lost investment, you can give them a chance to try something different and come back to the material. This is NOT a cop out; students still master the concepts and content. But this way they have a little more wiggle room to think about and chew on the material.

This also gives teachers chance to step back and research ways to address the content.  Students and teachers can come back and creatively approach what they’re learning from a different angle.

You can maintain high expectations and let students bring back some new energy to the challenge.

That’s a wrap for my ideas on giving students power and autonomy in the classroom. I hope you were able to glean something useful from this! Thanks for reading.

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