Lesson 3 from a year of self-directed learning: give them a stage!

In September 2018, we established a program that enabled a group of MYP students to direct their own learning for a year. In these blog posts I share three key lessons from that year.

Lesson 3: Give students a stage

So far, this series of blog posts might have given the impression that there were more failures than successes in our first year. But that’s definitely not true! I saw some extraordinary things last year. A 13-year old, new to English language and literature, writing, producing and promoting on her own Broadway-style musical. Students overcoming deep-rooted fears of public speaking and math. A debate between a group of 12 to 15 year olds about the merits of liberalism, Marxism and anarchism that wouldn’t have been out of place at a university. 

“You’re Next: The Musical”. One of the most extraordinary student achievements I’ve ever seen.

A common factor in each of these successes is that the students had a stage on which to demonstrate their learning. In the case of the musical, it was literally a stage, but in other projects it was simply running a workshop for peers or sharing learning at a student-led conference. 

A flipside of handing students ownership over their learning is that we teachers also lose a lot of control over the learning process (read: deadlines!). We tried to negotiate mid-point review and final deadlines with the students, but it often happened that when these approached, the students would make the case for extending the deadline; just a little more time for some final research, another day to do the final touches. Anyone who has written a dissertation will know the feeling. 

By giving students an authentic stage, we take away the possibility of extensions. It forces students to reflect on their learning and bring it together in a final product for their audience, be it their peers, parents or wider community. Furthermore, we don’t have to play the bad guy by refusing to give deadline extensions and can instead coach the student through.

For example, early on in the year we had a student working on a project about anatomical drawing. He was interested in Da Vinci and, with our arts and science Learning Guides, was developing his drawing skills and knowledge of muscle groups. For many weeks he sat quietly by the window sketching away, telling the Learning Guides he needed a bit more time to achieve his goals. As time went on we grew concerned about how he was progressing. Was too much time being spent on this project? When would the final product emerge?

We decided to give him a stage by asking him to give a workshop to the group the following week. It certainly caused some anxiety. The sketching became more frantic and on the morning of the workshop the student asked to postpone his session. But it had been advertised on the schedule and there was no backup plan, so he’d need to go ahead! We talked through how the workshop could be delivered and encouraged him onto his stage.

What followed was a session that any teacher would have been proud of. The student was able to teach us those techniques he’d spent hours practicing, all the while talking us through the different muscle groups and cheering everyone up by telling us that we all actually have six packs…somewhere! His knowledge and expertise shone through and was contagious. So much so, the group asked for another workshop the following week to continue their drawings. 

A lesson any teacher would be have been proud of.

Speaking to the student afterwards, he admitted that he’d begun to tread water with his project. He had put so much time into it, he didn’t know how to bring it together and was worried about what he’d do next. The workshop gave him the incentive to face these challenges and critically consider what he’d learned. Furthermore, the “buzz” of being an expert in front of peers was something he wanted to feel again.

We now try to ensure student’s are always given a stage for their learning, be this a one-off performance or exhibition, a workshop for their peers or a student-led conference with their family and friends. It doesn’t mean the end of their learning: just an authentic checkpoint.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

2 thoughts on “Lesson 3 from a year of self-directed learning: give them a stage!

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