Two years ago, a university student spent a quarter of the year observing in my Humanities classroom. He had never before heard of project-based learning and was caught a little off guard upon entering my room expecting an English class. He was very eager to learn about our unique and flexible approaches and enjoyed his time shared with us.
When it came time to teach his one lesson, he was very proud of his plan. He had incorporated drama and storytelling, choice and creation all into one jam-packed creative-thinking design activity. It was my turn to observe, so I sat back and watched. It was a highly engaging activity, and students were excited. All around the room, groups were calling him over to ask if they could do this or that or add in some props or try something like this one thing they saw once. His reply to nearly all questions was, “No.”
When the classroom was emptied of student eyes and ears, I asked him why he turned down so many of the student requests. He didn’t really know why he had except that he hadn’t anticipated many of the questions and didn’t want things to get out of hand. He said, “I just don’t like not having control.” My response?
“How do you think the kids feel?”
Humans yearn for a sense of control in their lives. It’s why so many of us are struggling under our current “safer at home” constraints. The students in our classrooms are no different. Project-based learning can provide students with a strong sense of control simply because they are involved throughout the entirety of the project process. Their voices are included every step of the way. This kind of autonomy in a school setting develops self-confidence, ownership, and independence.
I’m reminded of an idea I read in a book in recent years, though the book it came from is escaping me at the moment. At any rate, the author explains how babies make 0% of their own choices. Everything is decided for them. For safety reasons, it’s the best thing for them at that time. Our society has deemed adulthood to be when a person turns 18 years old, at which point he is responsible for 100% of his own choices. When we look at “growing up” in this way, the author (who I will remember as soon as I publish this post) argues that the job of parents, educators, coaches, and other adults in a child’s life is to prepare students to go from that 0% to 100% in those 18 years with a gradual release of control and independence. In middle school, students are over halfway there.
By handing over a chunk of control to their students, teachers need to be flexible with process and product outcomes. Giving control means giving choice, and students will not all make the same choices regarding their learning environments, processes, or products. That being said, not all students will be able to accept the same amount of control. Some are ready for a lot, while others are not yet equipped for that same amount. It requires a great deal of flexibility, patience, and understanding on the part of the teacher.
One of my favorite recent descriptions about how student differences should dictate the differences in their learning environments and expectations was in a TEDEd Talk delivered by a student named Olivia Chapman in 2017 (check it out!). The talk, entitled Is Equality Enough?, brings to light the uncomfortable realization that schools are a great example of negative equality – a spot where equality is not enough but rather equity is what schools should seeks to accomplish.
In her elaborate and eloquent speech, Olivia uses the following metaphor to illustrate the need for equity in schools:
“School is supposed to be a place to learn and to grow, but not all students grow well in the same conditions. Oddly enough, neither do plants. A cactus can store water for long periods of time. It doesn’t need much of any attention, and it is very large and very strong. An orchid, on the other hand, is a small, delicate flower that needs a precise temperature and amount of water in order to survive. So if you were to plant an orchid in the same environment as a cactus and expect them both to bloom, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Likewise, if you plant students in the same classroom environment, and expect them all to flourish, you’ll once again be disappointed. Not taking the time to think about every student as an individual is like telling a flower it’s not beautiful and that it doesn’t deserve to bloom because its petals aren’t the exact same shape or color as all the other flowers. But really, if you think about it, no two children or flowers are exactly alike.”
There you have it. Straight from the heart of a student who is living it. Students, like plants, require differing levels of support and care. There needs to be flexibility in learning environments and expectations based on the individual, not on state and national mandates. We need to foster safe and nurturing, creative and stimulating environments where students are able to grow into their own individual identities, at their own paces. Where they are planted may not fall within our students’ control, but we can offer opportunities for them to flourish and bloom where they are planted.