The Path to Discovery: Providing Real Choice in Schools

Chris McNutt
June 5, 2018
As far as I knew, this was “great teaching” — not only had I known my students “were learning” but often my lessons were engaging and at least better than what I remembered in school.

When I first left my teacher training program and joined the “real world”, I was accompanied by myriad papers to guide my quest of inspiring new thinkers. Drilled into my brain were the concepts of differentiation, student choice, and formative/summative assessment. My reigning document was a salmon, double-sided wall of text which was comprised of tech tools, artistic endeavors, discussion types, and more to engage and excite students. Routinely I went home to diligently plan each lesson, connecting at least two standards (from both Common Core and social studies), selecting at least one new tool from the toolbox of my document. As far as I knew, this was “great teaching” — not only had I known my students “were learning” but often my lessons were engaging and at least better than what I remembered in school.

However, the more I reflected — and most importantly, the more I listened to what the majority of students actually felt about school — it seemed my exhaustive nights of planning were going to waste. Was it really that engaging to fit in “cool” technology or was I simply masking something students didn’t really want to do? I felt I was designing the airplane to feed my students peas and carrots. It was a faux choice: by giving my students the opportunity to select “interesting” ways of doing their work, I neglected the choice of doing said work. (And it is telling that we tend to define “disguised tasks” as “work” rather than “learning.”) Why can’t students choose what they learn?

Choice is more than fitting options into a curriculum, it is a reimagined system of education — one that replaces the traditional teacher-led dictatorship into one of democracy. At its core, democratic classrooms provide students with authentic power — not the safe “choice” of what task they’ll complete by the teacher that day. This transformation is as daunting as it is unrecognizable to most schools. To give away your power as an educator is a terrifying feeling. After all, most classroom settings are fundamentally shaped by compliance — a teacher assigns work, students do said work, a teacher grades and returns it. Even when given some freedom, there is a common understanding that the teacher commands — no matter the task, a teacher will ultimately decide the outcome, including giving the power (temporarily) to students to choose that outcome for themselves.

Philosophically, there is a major problem with the teacher/student dichotomy: exposure and discovery are much different than listening and complying. Although a student may take away some knowledge, the lack of choice, self-actualized applicability, and credence to further inquiry destroys the process of natural learning. Of course, entire school networks operate democratic classrooms, from self-directed education centers to Alternative Schools such as Deborah Meier’s Central Park East project. These schools were built with student empowerment in mind, but what about the vast majority of traditional buildings that aren’t? Is it possible to have a democratic classroom or even school transformation?

Any teacher could return from summer break and say, “Okay everyone, you have total control. Do what you want!” and then panic as mass chaos ensues. However, this misconception misses how a democratic outlook is formed. These schools still have educators and tons of planning. Instead of looking at each lesson or purchasing massive curriculum packages, teachers develop frameworks for students to move within. The level of freedom will differ from school to school, based on the community and what students want — perhaps from total self-guidance to certain degrees of organization by instructors. As Paulo Freire stated,

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”

Universally, these frameworks allow students voice. The framework systemically outlines how students present their voice and provides near universal ways to do so. After all, how would one know what students want if they’re not listening to them?

Given all this, common reactions one might have is: “won’t students just play games all day?” “how will they pass the test?” “I’m a professional, students need to learn from me!” Ingrained in many mindsets are children not capable of learning on their own nor having the maturity to do much at all. Placing students in a compulsory, “no nonsense” setting for years of course has manifested this. There’s no denying that older students would have difficulty adjusting to this system — but that’s not a strong argument to dismiss it. After all, students brought up in these systems are more than capable of critical, open dialogue on designing their education. Do we not owe it to our students to acknowledge and build structures that permit their learning rather than what we want them to learn?

It isn’t always in line with content standards or standardized testing. We know testing isn’t a valid measure of intelligence. (Most I’d argue could not pass tests given to their students in other subject areas. I know I would fail math and likely, science.) Furthermore, it is difficult to pinpoint the relevancy of many content standards. All things considered, it’s not that students will completely dismiss everything. Children — especially those not disenfranchised by schooling — find a lot of what is typically traditional schoolwork exciting: books, lab experiments, robotics, historical reenactments, and much more. People naturally want to learn, grow, and develop. We know this as it’s human nature, but further obvious proof is that democratic schools already exist — and they aren’t 24/7 Fortnite centers — they’re filled with exciting projects, discussions, and even (opt-in) traditional coursework. Core subject areas are interesting in many ways, but when students are forced to do everything their intrinsic desire to learn is often lost. It’s not that they don’t care about the teacher’s subject, they just disregard how the curriculum forces compliance. And surely many will ignore many aspects of traditional subjects and gravitate toward those deemed less important by the testing industry (and therefore, schools): art, music, theater, and many others.

Furthermore, chaos is not normal for a classroom embodying freedom. Perhaps if no structures are in place — if students aren’t involved in planning nor have a clear understanding of what their place is — it may happen (a Lord of the Flies moment.) But as stated before, students thrive in open learning environments. And no, a teacher’s role is not lost. Yes, one will earn respect rather than assume it, but children still see an expert in the room. Usually, students want a teacher to provide them with lessons, even voting to give them power on what to do next. Sometimes classrooms just look like traditional classrooms. However, the incredibly acknowledged differentiator is that students chose this for themselves — it is remarkably different than a prescribed list that is handed down.

Dismally, creating these structures go against most school policies. Accepting this transformation will likely mean students are not prepared for traditional tests — which ties to funding and is realistically very important. If a teacher adopts this solely, they will more often than not face the wrath of administrators who see this as an act of rebellion, and many teachers will disparage their actions as “bad teaching.” Just as a democratic revolution of the classroom involves student empowerment, the process of getting there requires teacher empowerment as well. They must demand change through banding together, presenting their ideas, and even possibly making threats. Revolution isn’t safe — all major changes require sacrifice.

If a group succeeds in beginning change, any step forward is worth taking. That step must be large enough to matter, but not so much that the movement falls apart. Teachers must understand the pedagogy of democratic education — reading authors such as John Dewey, Deborah Meier, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Holt, and A.S. Neill. Progressive education is more about why we do things rather than what we actually do — frameworks are organic more than step-by-step. They must design a curriculum not based on what specific content students will learn, but how they’ll make a space where everyone’s voice is promoted and heard. This involves inviting students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community to the table — and a lot of powerful, tumultuous conversations. (Almost like the Constitutional Convention itself, albeit hopefully with representation of all.)

For most, I fear this isn’t possible — encouraging a group of teachers to look into experiential learning is already a tough task in many areas, let alone banding together and starting a freedom revolution. But again, any step is worth it — even if it’s just in your classroom. How much of a mitigated risk can you take and give power to your students? How much “creative manipulation” can you enact to “pull things off” at your school that administrators and state watch dogs may not know about? I hate to promote deceit — but revolutions are started by those willing to do whatever it takes, often in the shadows.

So, where do you start if it’s just you? I’m not an expert on transforming democratic classrooms (as stated before, it’s more about the why we do this, every community will look different), but there are some potential ways to get started:

You’ll likely find that older students are perplexed or humored by these ideas. They’ll feel it’s either a trick, a farce, or an opportunity for exploitation. I remember a time when I allowed a classroom of seniors to make their own rules and the first suggestion was to start each class with a whistle (for no apparent reason outside of the ridiculousness of it. *Interestingly, this lasted every day of the semester and students would be upset if we forgot the whistle, even going to lengths to restart class if warranted.) Silliness, weariness, or even indifference shouldn’t be surprising. And we can’t tell students to “take it seriously” — doing so is reinforcing that we’re at the front of the room, commanding on how to do everything. If we prefabricate what our room will operate like, that defeats the entire purpose. Students have been taught that the adult is in charge and school is supposed to be this way. Heck, the majority of my students initially want me to just make all the rules and curriculum decisions. However, by opening the door to democratic participation — students will take steps, just as you did, into the realm of inquiry and intrinsic learning…even if it’s just a few times.

Therefore, moving to a democratic classroom can be as large of a leap you’re willing to take. From letting students speak openly about what they’re doing to transforming an entire school to let students vote on policy decisions, any step we take to the change the mindset of compulsory education is worth it. For far too long we’ve accepted the status quo of stand-and-deliver passive classrooms. We can make learning matter, so why the masquerade of trivial work? Let’s move toward a system where students care about what they’re doing because they want to do it — not us.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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