Weeds in the Garden Essay

What if a student doesn’t want to learn what we want them to learn the way we want them to learn it?

This great blog post over at escheweducationalist got me thinking about that question. How much freedom should students have in our class to learn what they want to learn how they want to learn it? What if a student’s interest or talent draws them towards something else?

Another way of thinking about it: if our classes are gardens, do we demand neat and orderly rows where every student learning outcome is the same? Or can we live some weeds?

Let me state emphatically: FEED THE WEEDS. 

We want curious, excited students who think outside the box, even the box of our curriculum. Not every kid is the same, and if we attempt to create-cookie cutter outcomes, we will file to inspire, or they will fail to achieve. 

It’s our job as teachers to structure our curriculum to nourish student’s natural talent, grow their curiosity, and allow them to follow their passions

There are so many ways to teach, and even teach to standards, that still allow a large degree of academic freedom. You don’t have to do all of these all the time, but by doing some of them some of the time, you can create an environment where weeds can turn into wildflowers.

1.) Let them choose the manner of assessment. 

It’s well accepted that people learn in different ways and at different paces. That’s why differentiated instruction has been a buzz word ever since before I became a teacher. But even differentiated instruction doesn’t necessarily equal academic freedom for our students, if we’re not giving them choices.

Try letting your students choose how they will show you they’ve learned the content you’ve taught. Lets say you’ve just read something about the Boston Massacre. You could give them the following options:

  • Worksheets or questions out of the text book. 
  • Write a paragraph summarizing the event using the 5 W’s and key vocabulary.
  • Create a drawing showing the event from both the American and British perspective.
  • With a group create a skit replaying the event.
  • With a partner create a skit with Captain Thomas Preston on the witness stand being cross examined by prosecutor Samuel Quincy.
  • Write a song or poem about the massacre.

Each of these options demands rigor and assesses knowledge, but caters to the different strengths of your students. One of my students I currently teach is an extraordinary sculptor. He is constantly making sculptures out of clay, and more than a few times I’ve allowed him to create a clay sculpture as an assessment, usually in conjunction with a writing component. 

2.) Let them choose the level of understanding they want to show. 

Tiered assessments is one of the most effective strategies I have found in personal practice to motivate students, and keep them accountable. Simply put, for most assignments, students have three levels of understanding to choose from:

Meets Standard (C)

Above Standard (B)

Mastery (A)

Each level is more difficult than the previous. To show mastery of a concept requires students to use the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Tiered assessments has done more than anything else I’ve used in the classroom to improve learning outcomes. By clearly stating what has to be done to achieve mastery or above standard, “C” students push themselves to become “B” or “A” students.

3.) Allow them to choose what they study. 

Recently I introduced an assignment that had me so excited I blogged about it. Students would study the geography of the United States by making a game about Lewis and Clark. When I introduced it, the students were excited. Their eyes lit up, which happens less and less this time of year. I felt good about myself, until one student, who we’ll call Henry, burst my bubble.

“Awwwww” he groaned, “I don’t want to do any of that.”

Henry is a good student, one of my best in fact. He scored 100 out of 100 on my pretest. So I told him privately, “OK, you don’t have to.” He stiffened, not sure what was coming next. “I want you to find something that we’ve been talking about with North America, something you don’t know, but want to learn more about. Figure out what you want to know, and how you’re going to present it to me.”

About 15 minutes later Henry had a proposal to study the voyages of Henry Hudson, that he would present to me via a Google Slides presentation.

Now most students will need more structure than I gave Henry, but it is still possible to give students the chance to study what they want, within your curriculum. Somewhere along the line you’ve covered something that grabbed someone’s interest. Let them follow that thread and see where it goes.

Those are three things I do in my class to give students some choice and freedom in their education. I’d like to think the results are higher engagement, and ultimately higher learning outcomes. 

High School
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