January 23, 2011

Build it and they will...

I had an interesting never-before-happened experience teaching last week. During class, my students and I were discussing a PBL project that is the focus of our entire semester's classwork. Our discussions were lively, focused, in-depth, and highly productive. No lecturing. No handouts. Just a sharing of thoughts and ideas in a deliberative manner.

Then class ended after 50 minutes, but none of the students wanted to leave. They ALL wanted to continue our discussion. So, for 20 minutes more, we continued to deliberate and argue before I told them that I needed to get to my next appointment. Having students stay after class to continue continue our classroom conversation was unusual itself, but it was what happened later that was most unusual for me. The students came back after my appointment and asked if we could extend the class every Friday in order to have similar conversations on class-related topics and others. In short, the students were excited and engaged in their learning, and wanted more. Needless to say, I was thrilled that my students were energized by the class, but more by their desire for opportunities to think critically and creatively, and that they sought out the opportunities on their own accord.

This was my hope when designing the course this semester. I wanted to place more of the learning responsibility into the students' hands, and allow all of us - them and me - to work together on a project. I wanted to create a learning environment in which students were forced to think critically and creatively in solving complex problems. I wanted to create an learning environment in which students must relay on each other, must partner with one another to achieve their goals. I wanted to create a learning environment where they could feel they had control over their own learning, and where I was merely another collaborator. I wanted to create a learning environment in which there was no grade pressure, but only the expectation of each student's best work.

This experience demonstrates for me that if teachers create a learning environment that allows students to have an equal, respected voice in their learning, one in which students are challenged to think critically to solve relevant problems, and one in which students must be tolerant and respectful of others, students will indeed take control of their learning and make it more self-directed, more self-motivated, and more personally rewarding. Students will choose to learn because they want to learn.

This was week one. Now begins the difficult task of nurturing throughout the semester the energy and enthusiasm students demonstrated in the first week of class.