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Giving Kids the Keys

“Every teacher spends an hour lecturing us about rules and netbooks and textbooks and such, and we’re all so used to it, we usually just sit there either with drool hanging out of our mouths and our brains somewhere else, or doodling on a sheet of notebook paper.  We’ve heard it all before, so none of us really pay attention.  We listen to whoever we have first period, and then for the rest of the day, we sort of sit there, as I said, with drool hanging out of our mouths, half asleep, wouldn’t even notice if the teacher’s hair was on fire.”  – 8th graderbored student

The above reflection is an alarm bell.  It should signal to teachers and administrators that things need to change in classrooms.  This 8th grader may have been the only one brave enough to write and turn in such an honest opinion, but it is very unlikely that she is alone in her assessment.  Many students, whether they actually have drool hanging out of their mouths or not, are being systematically disengaged by schools and by teachers who struggle to relinquish control to their students.  Great strides have been made to move from the “sage on the stage” mentality of past generations and “student-centered” has become the norm in school literature, but many schools have yet to find a way to eliminate the scene described in the above student commentary.  We need to find a way to move from student-centered to student-driven, and all it takes is trusting kids enough to give them the keys.

Project based learning, experiential learning, inquiry, and student-written class rules are all examples of useful ways to give students a voice in their schools and in their work.  Many times, however, the limitations still exist and it is because of our attitudes, not our pedagogical strategies.  Too often adults don’t believe kids can handle the responsibility of leading and designing their own learning.  In some cases, this may be true, but it is likely because they have been trained not to.  For most of their young lives, they have been relieved of all responsibilities by their parents and teachers.  From cleaning up after them to packing their backpacks every morning for school to helping them with homework, adults continuously teach our kids to not be responsible.  When they arrive in class, most students expect to be told what to do, how to do it, and be helped if they have trouble.  The only way to help students develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning is to give them control of it.  There will likely be frustrating challenges and failures along the way for students, but it takes challenge and failure to rise to new heightened expectations.   There will also likely be terrifying moments for teachers.  They must find a way to put their organized, prepared, often linear-thinking selves in the passenger seat and realize that school needs to be about what students find compelling, not teachers.

Educators should embrace the position of navigator.  Give our student drivers the keys, ask them where they want to go, and help them get there by pointing out the various routes and possible detours.  We must resist the temptation to grab the wheel or slam on the brakes because it is the creative, optimistic, anything is possible attitude of children that pushes forward the bold ideas of innovation.  We must simply buckle up and hang on while our students lead us on adventures we couldn’t possibly have planned.

This TED talk by 12 year old Adora Svitak shows there is much adults can learn from children.

Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. – Adora Svitak

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