Every so often an idea has its moment, as a wavelet appears on the Internet. Right now I'm seeing this idea: that education as currently practiced in this country discourages risk-taking and encourages a fear of failure.
I saw it in an article that the faculty at my school read and discussed. I saw it in this recent op-ed in the New York Times, or this article in The Atlantic. And frankly I see it all too often in students at my school: from students afraid to contribute to a discussion for fear of saying something "wrong" to students who have to get their teacher's OK for every single edit to their paper, to students who see a low grade as a failure rather than a chance to learn.
I'm concerned that the way I teach is part of the problem here. So that's why I'm considering trying something different with my World Religions class for the new unit, on Buddhism. This class provides the perfect opportunity to experiment. I'm the only teacher, so I don't have to coordinate my experiment with anyone else. It's a non-honors, non-AP elective, so there's no standardized test I need to worry about. And it's a small class, which means it's easier to monitor, adjust, and, if necessary, recover.
My plan is adopted pretty directly from a plan I learned about from Heather Hersey at TeachMeetNJ last spring. Students use a backwards design-inspired planning sheet (her example is here) to plan their own learning. The challenge is that my students will be learning about Buddhism, something they may know little about, so it will have to be a learning plan in process, refined as students learn more about what they want, and need, to know. The goal is to encourage students to ask questions, take risks, and see their learning as something they are motivated to do, rather than something imposed on them by me.
The plan would be to begin with some class brainstorming on what they know already, then start thinking about what they want to know. From those topics they'll develop a preliminary list of questions and content, though that will be updated as they proceed.
I've always run the class seminar style, and I want to keep some of that social, conversational aspect of the class. I'd do this in two ways: first, by going over, as a class, key core ideas of Buddhism (e. g. The Four Noble Truths--if you're going to study Buddhism you have to know that), so students can react to and discuss those as a group. Second, I'm interested in the idea of using Soapbox to have students propose and rank questions to discuss, so we can spend part of each class discussing those questions. I might also give a portion of class time for students to present what they've learned. So class time can continue to be social and collaborative while homework and assessments will be more personalized, directed towards answering the questions and learning the content each students has chosen for him/herself.
I haven't decided yet whether to try it, although as the new unit begins on Monday, I have to decide soon. I'd rather like to get student reactions to the idea first, but there may not be time. When I mentioned the general idea of more student-directed learning in my last class, some were enthusiastic, others much less so. In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts or suggestions, encouragement or warnings, please pass them on.