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Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Happens When You Give Students the Control? Part 2

I wanted to follow up on one of the stories I told in the last post. When I gave a group of 4th graders the freedom to learn about anything they wanted, they chose to purse the answer to the question: What is it about the human brain which causes it to make the decisions that it does? This question continues to floor me that it came out of the mouth’s of ten year old children. When they realized that they couldn’t google the answer, they looked for more sources. They then came up with the idea to ask a “super smart scientist.” They sought out scientists who study the brain. I emailed them, and Dr. David Wingate from MIT graciously agreed to spend 30 min with these amazing fourth graders.

I was very proud of our kids for both their questions for Dr. Wingate, and for the way they interacted with him. Below is a few excerpts of our skype conversation with him this past Monday.

As I ponder how these students both formulated their question, and how they went about trying to find the answer, I am struck with two things:

  • This was their problem. They wanted to know the answer to this question. When we give students the power to decide what they want to learn, they will go above and beyond the “classroom.”

  • Passion Driven Learning is more a mirror of how we all learn now. When I want to learn about something, I just go and learn it. I don’t usually take a class, I simply go out on the web, or find people to help me, and hunker down and learn. This is exactly what these students did (and are still doing).

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Happens When You Give Students the Control?

Recently I had the privilege of sitting in on a workshop conducted by Ewan McIntosh ( who took us through a process where he helped us (the students) become better “problem finders.”  He then challenged us to go out and help our students become better “problem finders.”  Giving up control is often hard, especially for educators, but I realized I wanted to move this way.   Thus, I thought of a group of forth graders I was going to work with the following week.

These forth graders come to see me twice a week for enrichment and I decided to see what would happen.  So on our first visit, I copied Ewan and took these ten year olds through an exercise to help them learn whatever they wanted to learn about.  The only stipulation I gave them was that they had to choose a science related topic, since this was my field of expertise.  After two thirty-minute sessions with these students they came up with two very good problems to be solved. 

They fell into two distinct groups and they came up with two VERY different questions:  The first group wanted to figure out how to solve the problem of groundwater pollution.  Once they settled on their topic, they realized they didn’t really know very much about groundwater pollution.  In fact, their understanding of what groundwater pollution is was incorrect.  I allowed this misconception to persist and encouraged them to learn all that they could about groundwater pollution.  Once they understood what groundwater was, they realized that the best way to “solve” the problem of groundwater pollution was to prevent it.  As of this post, these students have decided to make a 2-3 min video where they are going to educate people about the dangers of groundwater pollution.  They hope to put it on youtube and educate the world.

The other group came up with the question:  What is it about the human brain that causes it to make the decisions that it makes?  This question was truly advanced for a bunch of forth graders.  As they began their research they had a daunting task.  After about four sessions, they turned to me and said that this answer is not out their on google.  They knew some things, but they needed help.  One young man told me we needed to ask a “super smart scientist.”  So I told him we should do that.  He then replied, “Who would want to talk to a group of ten year olds?”  And I told him you might be surprised. 

So I encouraged them to reach out on the web and look for some neuroscientists to skype in and help them.  And you can probably predict what happened.  They are now looking forward to skypeing in with a professor of cognitive neurology from MIT this coming Monday. 

My take-away’s from these two events is that we do need to give up the control of the learning to our students.  They will pursue things with passion if we only give them the chance.