Recently, I was looking at a travel brochure, and the following quote jumped out at me,

I love the sensations, the brief moments of total focus, the feeling of being in another world, figuring out the unknown, and sharing these moments with your best friends.

While he was talking about mountain climbing, this is what I want my students to experience in my classroom: being totally absorbed in their learning so they lose all sense of time, savoring the sheer joy of grappling with the unknown and occasionally reaching the mountain top.  And coming back to do it day after day after day.

Do I think a classroom like this is possible?  Absolutely. A classroom anchored with inquiry and project-based learning, with an occasional flipped lesson, can be exactly that.

Last spring I asked my students to tell me about their experience in an inquiry classroom, during the creation of our Holocaust Museum. This comment by Rosalie (age 16) is what every teacher who’s worked up the courage to to experiment with project and inquiry learning wants to hear:

“I definitely see learning differently after that project, because during the entire project I was kinda my own teacher — I wanted to know about something– well I researched it and I was able to teach others what I learned and vice versa. It was a very hands-on project and I learn way better that way. Usually I learn things only for the test and then after that, it’s out of my mind two days later. But for this, what I learned doesn’t get out of my head, because it’s all things that interested me and I actually wanted to learn.” — Rosalie, Age 16

Here’s how some other students responded to my question: Did the Holocaust project change the way you think about learning? About school?

“Yes it did. I couldn’t rely on the teacher anymore, I had to rely on myself and my classmates; which is a lot harder than you think.”

“I had a wonderful experience while doing the Holocaust project because not only did I get to show my work, but people got to see the talents I have.  I don’t think I could have learned as much from a book.  I think it’s easier to pay attention to people than a book.”

“We were given the opportunity to go into any aspect of the holocaust. We weren’t told to study certain things and had limits on what we wanted to learn. People just went into what interested them most. I wouldn’t have been able to learn as much as I did if we were only using text books. Sure, they put the important “stuff” in there everybody needs to know, but with the internet, anybody can put things on it. So you can research anything and somebody will have something about it. Like, who would have thought that not only the Jews had stars.”

“The Holocaust project did in fact change the way I think about learning and school. Before this, I thought that learning and school was that you sat in a desk for the day and wrote paperwork and math equations and different types of exams. I see now that school subjects can be taught in a more unique, fun, and enjoyable way for the students. It will help the students think positive about school and they will want to come and learn.”

I’ve been thinking about Erik Erikson’s development theory. Erikson, and virtually all development theorists after him, contend that identity is the goal of adolescence, and identity formation is the developmental “crisis” that young people must resolve.

I wonder what effect our societies’ low expectations of adolescents has on their development? What does it do to one’s identity when often we give our teenagers so very few meaningful roles or real work to do?  That the five hours they spend in classes a day often results in rote learning that is frequently memorized the night before an exam and then forgotten?

What if instead, high school students spent five hours a day constructing an identity while responding creatively to their moment in history? What if they were told they can change the world now?

Every stage of the life cycle brings certain characteristics to the forefront.  In adolescence it’s often passion. I love this quote from Cuyler Black,

Teenagers are heat seeking missiles. They’re drawn to fire. They yearn for experiences that will channel their passions.

How are we responding to this passionate need for identity in our school systems today?  Most often I think we tend to smother or anesthetize this reality in our students.  Do we offer passionate learning? More importantly do we model passionate learning?

Instead of learning environments that stifle student passion, what if we created schools that promote a sense of autonomy, initiative and creativity while encouraging questioning, critical thinking, dialogue and authentic collaboration?


Photo credit: Douglas Johnson, Creative Commons

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