School: What If Kids Actually Had a Say?

Think back to your school years. How much of a say did you have back in your "days of learning?" What went on during the day? How much of the classroom content was decided before you even walked in the door?

But what if school had been a place where you actually had a say in what you learned?

Finding the right content for the classroom is a healthy problem that should always redirect our approach to education. I would go as far to argue that finding content for the classroom is probably one of the most important roles within our society.

Yet, to simply assume there is a “right” content for every classroom, for every age level, and for every student, might just be one the greatest myths we have come to believe when it comes to schooling.

Even mentioning curriculum and content for the classroom brings up a wide array of opinions on the matter. We can find many teachers who think school districts are too heavy-handed in their involvement in the classroom, and other teachers who find the amount just right. While on the other hand, one would be able to find plenty of teachers, unfortunately, who just want to be told what to teach in their classroom. Give me the book, give me a script, and give me the authority (see factory work).

One problem with a mandated and bureaucratic approach to education is that school becomes too centralized. Once something is centralized it often becomes systematized. If education becomes too centralized, then the introduction of new ideas becomes stifled. Why? Because any idea that runs contrary to the systemic approach gets tossed aside.

Well, what about the ideas that make it through? Those ideas are often plagued with two main problems. First, by the time those ideas make their way to the classroom, they become nothing more than a way to systemize the learning environment. Secondly, the ideas become so riddled with bureaucracy and oversight that their effectiveness is usually more harmful than beneficial.

Believe it or not, the Department of Education does not have a Great Idea sector that churns out brilliant ways to fill our schools with good ideas. No, good ideas happen organically. Good ideas aren’t systemized and mandated; they are shared and re-shared. Good ideas are spread through cooperation, not coercion.

Creativity blossoms when coercion is taken off the table. How do teachers spread ideas? It’s simple. Teachers find good ideas by asking other teachers, looking on Pinterest, reading blogs, perusing the internet, and attending seminars. Teachers know the best ideas happen through cooperative interaction.

Therefore, if we can acknowledge that good ideas spread best organically, can we also acknowledge that good ideas spread best if they are relevant? In other words, if we view education through this paradigm of cooperation, we must also consider the relevance of ideas for our classrooms.

Chiefly, we should ask what great ideas are being introduced in the real world that we as teachers need to introduce into our classrooms? What ideas are relevant to the lives of our students? What content will our students find applicable to their lives today?

Now, if you’ve agreed with me so far, I’d like to stretch this idea a little further. If we agree that introducing new ideas is paramount in education, and that ideas are best spread through cooperation and not coercion, then shouldn’t we agree that organizations that try to control and mandate those ideas probably aren’t exactly the best source of content for the classroom? Moreover, if heavy-handed mandates aren’t good sources of content, does that make you, the teacher, a better source?

Well that depends. It’s not just about a school finding content for the classroom; nor should it just be up to the teacher. If the teacher simply dictates what is taught and what is not, then the classroom educator turns into that autocratic distributor of content, and is fundamentally no different than any bureaucratic approach.

I would argue the most important factor in deciding classroom content is actually the students.

The whole purpose of school should be centered on students – not content. Schools need to weave content into student desires, not the other way around.

Simply stated, kids will want to learn about what they want to learn about. Everyone likes learning, because learning is easy. The hard part is when we try to get every kid to learn the same thing – especially when those content areas may not be applicable to their lives (at least not yet – but sometimes not ever).

So, this year I’ve taken this theoretical approach and turned it into a reality.

This year, I’ve resolved to start discussing this idea more often with my students in my classroom. I’ve asked them what they’ve liked, what they haven’t liked, what their interests are, what they’d rather learn about. I aim to seek their feedback, and seek it often.

You know, businesses are always seeking our input, and they are always looking for our feedback. The local pizza joint is always asking us to fill out questionnaires or do quick survey. They are always looking for ways to improve their product. “How was your pizza? Was it hot? Was it correctly made? What can we do to better satisfy you?”

How often do we do this in schools? How often are we asking students, “Hey kids, how’d I do today?” “Did I yell too much?” “Was I fair in the way I treated you?” Did we learn about something you wanted to learn about?”

So on top of that, there is this one last thing, it’s that my interaction with buying from the local pizza joint is completely voluntary. I get to choose whether I want their service or not. They are not the only pizza joint in town, so they have to continually seek improvement and improve the quality of their product. If they don’t, then I’ll go elsewhere. If a business doesn’t want to meet my needs, then I’ll find one that does. Business models built on customer satisfaction are businesses built for perpetuity.

Then there are our schools – whose patrons’ attendance isn’t exactly voluntary. They really don’t have much of a say in what they will be learning, how they will be educated, or who will be instructing them. I don’t want to equate school to business, but if a business ran on this principle, they’d go belly-up in a week.

So the closing question(s) is this: if we have this involuntary situation where students come to consume ideas – shouldn’t we be trying to provide them with the absolute best ideas possible? And, is it a great idea to mandate and control those ideas? And most importantly, shouldn’t we try to let students play a part in deciding what they will be learning?

But here is the good news: there are actually schools trying to do this. There are teachers who are renewing what education looks like. They are taking on these challenges. They are incorporating new ideas and thinking outside the norm. They are the teachers who are revolutionizing our schools. They are making education meaningful and relevant. They are the teachers who think for tomorrow. They are the teachers who bring about meaningful change in our world.

They are the teachers whose ideas are worth spreading.