I'm having dinner with my friend Alec in a couple of weeks. Alec is designing an innovation school called STEAM Academy and he has written a number of blog posts on education. I read his blog post on rendering learners legible months ago and loved it. In it, he points out how schooling is designed to steer students down a predetermined path and how we are working hard at exerting even greater control over our students.
I re-read Alec's blog post two nights ago, but this time, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I've been writing that a sense-making curriculum enables students to take ownership of their own learning because, once a student makes sense of something, they can apply it and build on it. Making sense of one thing also motivates you to make sense of other things and helps you develop sense-making skills. But the sense-making curriculum that I've been writing about has been my curriculum, not my students' curriculum. Is it possible for students to take ownership of their own learning when the curriculum isn't theirs?
Based on what I've written about ownership myself, the short answer is no. You can't own a curriculum if you don't have any control over it, and it is hard to imagine how you can own your own learning if you don't own the curriculum. I've been arguing that educators who focus on instruction and student engagement are trying to inoculate their students against the corrosive effects of a nonsense-making curriculum instead of helping students actually make sense of the curriculum, but has my perspective been too narrow? If I take a step back, am I focused on helping students make sense of the curriculum simply to inoculate them against the corrosive effects of a curriculum that is being imposed on them? Should I focus on delivering a student-centered curriculum instead?
I've spent the past two days replaying my experiences with students in my head. I believe that, if they were given the choice, most of my students would choose to be in my classroom and to follow my curriculum. Even if they didn't have to be in school at all, they would choose to come to school to continue engaging in our learning community. That's because our learning community is a special place; it is a place where students discover themselves and their capabilities. In middle school, students are questioning who they will be as adults. Many worry that they are dumb and lazy because others see them as dumb and lazy and that is always how they behave. They may believe or hope that they have the potential for more, but they aren't completely sure. In our learning community, some of that potential is realized. They are productive and valued. They are learning things that prepare them for high school and college and beyond. They see themselves growing as learners and thinkers, developing learning skills and habits of mind that can be applied anywhere. They are happy to come to class because it recharges them intellectually and spiritually.
But they aren't given the choice, and that makes all the difference. I could start offering them the choice mid-year. By that time, they trust me and believe that I have their best interests at heart, so I could steer them to make the choice that I want. But I would know it was a false choice, and they would know it, too. I'm not going to offer them a choice until it is a real choice. I've had a number of students say to me, completely out of the blue, that: "Math class is my favorite class, but math isn't my favorite subject." I think they were trying to tell me something. I can create an environment where they love learning math, but I can't make them love math. That comes from within, and students need to make that choice for themselves. We need to give them that choice so that they can make it.
Before I re-read Alec's blog post, I wrote about where I am now. In that post, I recognized that a sense-making curriculum couldn't reach its full potential as long as it had to align with Common Core standards or high school course pathways. But I thought that I could design a sense-making curriculum within those constraints that would be effective enough to create a tipping point for change, making student ownership of the curriculum possible. Can change precede student ownership of the curriculum or can change only occur when there is student ownership of the curriculum?
For me, student ownership is a mountain and not a compass. It is part of my new normal, and if you end up in a place where students aren't taking ownership of their own learning, then you are badly lost. But optimizing for student ownership does not necessarily lead to good curriculum or better learning. STEAM Academy cites High Tech High as a model for student-centered, project-driven curricula and professional development. High Tech High shares a number of these projects on its website. Well, the projects aren't good. There is little evidence that the projects help students make sense of the curricula or that there is any kind of learning progression across projects. Designing the curriculum may empower students in the short term, but if that curriculum doesn't build understanding and lead them some place interesting, will those students still value that ownership in the long term?
If I had to choose between a nonsense-making curriculum without a learning progression that students control, or a sense-making curriculum with a learning progression that I control, I would choose the latter. And based on my experiences with students, students would choose the latter as well. Of course, our choices don't have to be quite so stark. There should be a way to design a sense-making curriculum with a learning progression and shared control. I'm not sure how to do it yet, but I'm thinking about it.
So, am I prepared to take the Hippocratic Oath for a sense-making curriculum? Alec ends his post by asking that of Sal Khan and personalized education. Could a sense-making curriculum be misapplied to exert more control over students or cause harm? I don't see how. In a sense-making curriculum, students don't just make sense of the curriculum; they make sense of everything. They would recognize the control and resist. At the same time, any teacher capable of designing a sense-making curriculum would recognize and resist it as well. Sense-making is inherently empowering and enlightening. That's why it's my compass and why I can honestly take the Hippocratic Oath.