Daily Archives: March 9, 2012

Student Agency, Facilitate growth and development for today (without waiting for tomorrow)

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One of the reasons students get frustrated with education is that they are constantly told what to believe, how to do things, and when to be where or turn in X.  Understandably, this is difficult for students who are trying to establish their place and identity in the world.  In fact, it may be more alarming if they are not frustrated by this.  Unless they are incredibly far-sighted and naturally less-inclined to be social, then being totally at peace with life as a sheep leaves them vulnerable to being hoodwinked by sales, media, PR, and politicians.  It also means they are less likely to stray from the box in meeting with challenges in their field or community.

Where can we grant them agency?  If they are curious about something, do we support their investigation of it, or squelch it because we cannot accommodate it in our curriculum?  When we teach, do we let them take on the lead role of researcher and investigator, or do we insist on force-feeding them (disputable) facts from a textbook?  Do we let them debate and argue the points of view that they develop as the result of study and research?  Do we provide opportunities for them to take the lead whether in developing projects or ideas?

I am not saying that we should force them to languish at the limits of inexperience and cease teaching or facilitating.  But, I am suggesting that we facilitate their ability to take action, now.  People are always telling students that they are the future.  This implies that they must wait.  Wait to make an impact.  Wait to be involved.  Wait to be professional.  Why must they wait?  Do we expect them to mature faster if they are in every other regard waiting?  Yes, they must wait to be of driving age, voting age, and drinking age.  Yes, they should wait on major decisions that will have profound impacts on their life though they may not now be psychologically prepared for all of the considerations needed in the decision-making process.  All the more reason to facilitate healthy decision-making, project-planning, and development in their education.  Provide a safe environment where students can take risks, but in which the risks safely result in learning experiences instead of potentially harmful consequences if the gamble fails.

It works in every field.  Business plans, science experiments, policy questions and planning, etc.  In grad school, I had a theory that there was rhyme and reason, as yet undiscovered, in the ordering of Bede’s Martyrology.  After a semester of possible ideas, I found nothing conclusive (though, I still have to wonder if I was just unable to find the answer).  My final project included the admission that I had failed to find anything suggesting a method to its design.  Sometimes we have to fail.  Sometimes we have to dare something big, fail, and learn valuable lessons and insights that will make our next dare more successful.

In history, where textbooks could as likely be weapons of indoctrination as educational tools, it is important that we give students the opportunity to learn how to think like a historian, how to research, conclude, and argue.  Give them the opportunity to find the answers that they seek with guidance, but not by being told what they should conclude.  Give them the opportunity to be historians and not just passive learners (which seldom means they are actually learning).

Historians research primary sources and critically review secondary sources.  So should students.  Historians provide arguments for their conclusions, answering their own questions that have been generated through their reading or listening of primary and secondary sources.  So should students.  Historians provide peer reviews at all stages of a project.  So should students.  Historians attend colloquia, in which they hear the presentation of papers and ideas from other historians–even those coming from outside their own sub-field.  So should students.

In this way, they are legitimately validated in their own hard work and thought processes.  They genuinely develop self-confidence in their own abilities (note, that all of the above included the skills of writing, speaking, arguing, researching, presenting, and developing one’s own conclusions).  They work through difficult processes some of which may lead to dead ends, but which may nonetheless lead to much valuable learning through self-reflection.  They practice discerning which testimony is valuable and make judgments about which is more reliable.  They work through the arguments of others and test the logic used, making them more skilled at evaluating the proposals of others in different fields and contexts.

By giving students agency, now, you are not telling them that they have to wait to think, argue, develop plans or solutions, or to act.  You are facilitating, challenging, and testing them on being active right now.  You are helping them be more effective in every area of their life.


Filed under Editorials on education, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning