Bias Toward Action: Experimentation & Inclusion

Adopt a bias toward action to experiment with how you might empower students to self-direct their learning and demonstrate it authentically.

Photo of Paul Kim
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In the rural community of Pittsfield, New Hampshire, the local high school was struggling with attendance, discipline, and general student disengagement. To address the issues, recalls John Freeman, the superintendent, did some empathy work by setting up tables at long-standing local events like Old Home Day and the Rotary Club’s Hot Air Balloon Rally, attending civic meetings, and hosting public forums.

The long term result was the formation of the Site Council, a governing body that gives students and residents a say on the school’s rules and regulations, and the Justice Committee, where students help each other resolve conflicts to reduce suspensions and detentions. And students are now able to choose how they want to demonstrate mastery of learned material.

On the Site Council, students work alongside administrators, teachers, and community members to make decisions about school policies like the dress code and class schedules. As elected and appointed members, students provide their own perspectives and are also expected to take their classmates’ views into consideration during their biweekly meetings.

Operating with a bias toward action, Colorado Academy started a one trimester program for juniors last year (full disclosure: I designed and run the program). The REDI Lab at Colorado Academy (REDI is an acronym for the program’s pillars: research, entrepreneurship, design, inquiry) is an opportunity for students to self-direct their education during the spring of their 11th grade year while also completing a major project of personal interest. During the trimester, juniors engaged in learning that was potent because it was personalized and driven by agency.

REDI Lab participants were admitted into the program for their distinct, individual potential and initiative. In working with these students in an environment where they had decision-making power, we were able to gain unique insights into their curiosities, talents, and dispositions. We also more closely witnessed their paths toward growth and self-actualization.

I mention this here because I believe that most schools can quickly develop a program somewhere in the school day (maybe even an afterschool club) where students have the opportunity to self-direct their way through some curriculum or a project (personal or school-related) with the guidance of a teacher and/or other experts. Perhaps framing it as an experiment would change the stakes so that schools and students might take the risk to find out about the learning that can come from such an enterprise.  It took us about 18 months to get our program going but I can imagine starting something within a few weeks.

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Photo of Patricia Smeyers

This is an excellent idea. I actually like to run my classroom in the fashion at times. Student directed approaches brings responsibility, ownership, and motivation, along with the much needed cooperation. This was the reason I felt students should have a voice in their schools Internet use and Social Media Policy that I put up here. Thank you for your expertise. I believe we have a like-minded vision, just with different age groups. It works across the district. I can't wait to hear how this pans out.