Kids in charge

President Obama at a Maryland middle school in February

As we try to reform public education, a number of experts are weighing in about the best course of action. Is it getting rid of unions? Merit pay for teachers? Changing standards? Eliminating standardized tests? Overhauling the way that we teach? But as the discussion rages on among politicians and educators, there is one group of experts that no one seems to be consulting: the students themselves.

In my December post A failure of imagination, I was surprised at how many students responded to the topic. They mostly seemed exhausted, brow beaten and disappointed in their educational experiences, and that’s a shame. It is THEIR education. THEY are the ones most affected by education reform’s success or failure. People keep talking about their future, but leaving THEM out of it. Is it arrogance to assume that as adults we know better, or that student opinion doesn’t count? Because the evidence shows that when students are involved in creating their own educational experience, the results are overwhelmingly better than anything the adults have come up with.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett recently wrote about a group of primary school students in the UK who had their scientific study on bumblebee behavior published in a scientific journal. This was something they did at school under the guidance of their teacher and neuroscientist, Beau Lotto. It seems like an extraordinary endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. The kids were interested. So they worked hard. And they learned far more than they would have if they were learning about bees from a textbook. And at the end of it, the accomplishment wasn’t a grade on a standardized test, it was a published study.

Similarly, a recent New York Times opinion piece by Susan Engel showed a group of High School students in Massachusetts who were allowed to design their own curriculum. Students who were considering dropping out, excelled. Good students remembered what they liked about school and did better. And even after returning to a “regular” curriculum, they are all still performing better than they were before.

Homeschooling parents know that you have to let kids pick their topics. Why can’t we apply the same sense to public schools? Even if it is one semester a year that students get to do their own thing, isn’t it worth it to allow them to have the choice? To excel? To have an experience that they couldn’t possibly get from a textbook? The elementary school kids from the UK were reminded that science was “cool and fun” and one of the students in Massachusetts said, “I did well before. But I had forgotten what I actually like doing.”

While the grownups worry about the money, and the politics, and the dropout rate, and the effectiveness of teachers, the kids are saying, why can’t you just listen to us?

And we should.




4 thoughts on “Kids in charge

  1. Mutterschwester says:

    I’m torn about this one. I taught for 12 years in a high school that gave students large menus of classes from which to choose, and some excelled while others chose NOT to choose through apathy. Others made very poor choices and then “checked out” when their expectations (That’ll be easy! Astronomy = Astrology!) weren’t met in reality. I think a lot more than offering up autonomy and control goes into it. A lot of studies and programs are conducted under unsustainable conditions – and once those conditions loosen the results begin to fray.

    Still, it would be great to be able to offer these opportunities to students who both want or need to have this type of responsibility.

  2. Tracey says:

    M, first let me apologize for taking so long to respond.

    Second, in the cases above, the kids were creating their own curriculum from scratch, not from pre-set classes. The caveat there is that they’re picking the things that they are most interested in, so there’s no confusion or surprise (astronomy/astrology) when they start doing the work. Since the examples above gave kids total autonomy in picking the subject matter, the interest level and willingness to perform skyrocketed.

    Of course, as you say, this may not work for some kids, but I suspect it will work for most.

  3. Mutterschwester says:

    That’s true, and I’m sure it raises interest considerably – wonderfully! Still, I’m skeptical about adapting these sorts of programs on a large scale. Hopeful, but skeptical.

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