In Students I Trust

I believe that one of the most important issues surrounding the development and implementation of great teaching strategies is trust. As Robert Talbert stated in “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” there is a place for lecture  in the classroom. However, people learn by doing, not by watching and listening. When planning a teaching unit, I think that it is good to start with standards and objectives (statements of what your students should know and be able to do), then find and create activities which will help them attain the objectives. Lecture is used to explain and discuss how particular knowledge is structured and to model ways of thinking or processes. Freeing students to learn by doing projects such as those shown in the Digital Media video requires trust on the part of the teacher. The teacher must trust the students to learn knowledge and skills that are not explicitly presented to them. While the teacher can create a project that requires mastery of a given set of objectives to complete well, the teacher cannot guarantee that all students will see the material that she would have presented were she lecturing. Instead, the teacher must trust that the students will learn what is needed. This is difficult for most teachers to do. One solution is to combine student-centered learning with frequent and brief formative assessments which provide feedback about what students understand and misunderstand. The results of these assessments could be used to guide students when necessary.

Standards- and objectives-based projects that result in student learning are difficult to design and exhilarating to facilitate. Fortunately, there are many examples to be found online. For instance, one year I had my IB Physics students launch a space balloon (idea stolen from MIT). I proposed the project and my students (mostly aspiring engineers) loved it! I provided materials and got FAA approval. They did the rest. Even 6 years later, they talk about it on Facebook. I have also had students keep Galilean-inspired skywatch notebooks, lead star parties, create scale models of the solar system, and design and build egg launching devices. Given students that struggle on state-required tests makes this type of teaching more difficult and much scarier, but not impossible. If teachers trust their students to learn from small projects, then measure what they have learned and adjust instruction accordingly, they can build greater trust over time. Greater trust can lead to greater student autonomy (more room to fly or crash and recover!). Over time, teachers and students (and in the case of K-12, parents, and administrators) can build a system that is rewarding for both teachers and learners—a system with autonomy, creativity, and trust.