Sunday, January 6, 2013

A more open classroom

Photo by David Niblack
It's more open in the sense that the students have more freedom to choose assignments and modes of learning. It's open in the sense that they don't have to ask me to use the bathroom. It's open in the sense that they're free to use their cell phones. It is open in the sense that it is open-ended: What they learn is up to them. Their grades are up to them. At least, that's the idea.

I started doing it as a classroom management technique. I knew I need to change something. Last year didn't go as I would have liked. I had a hard time controlling my standard-college-prep-level sophomores. Many of them simply didn't care about atoms, cellular respiration, and DNA, and trying to "teach" them was like force-feeding medicine to a baby. No, it was worse than that, because they were not babies, but young adults, and many of them simply wouldn't (or couldn't) swallow it.

And to tell you the truth, I didn't blame them. I'm not being forced to learn anything I'm not interested in, nor do I wish to be. Nor do I remember most of what I was forced to learn in my first twelve years of schooling. I learn best when I choose what to learn and how to learn. And so do they. So that's what I'm trying to do for them--give them more freedom of choice, more ownership of their learning. And I think it's working.

For most assignments, they have four choices: one is an artistic or writing approach, one is hands-on, one is online, and one is textbook reading with worksheets. And sometimes the classroom absolutely beautiful--everyone focused, asking thoughtful questions, and working hard on different activities. For example, for our ATP lesson, I started with a brief lecture about ATP to introduce the concept, then they got to choose between four options: make a poster about ATP, make a model of ATP, make an online animation of ATP, or read a section in their text and complete a worksheet packet. The results were amazing. The online animations were fantastic, and one group made a working model that blew me away.

In general, they all work diligently on the assignments. Though there is a fair amount of socializing at times, I don't worry too much about it. My philosophy is  if they are not getting their work done, it will show in their grades, and I tell them so. And they have responded well to this responsibility.

I have taken a similar approach with my cell phone policy. If they choose to text instead of work or listen, it will show in their grades. If they are able to learn the material well, then why does it matter if they text during class? On the other hand, if they choose to neglect their work, then they should bear the consequences. I will try to persuade them to work, and I will help them overcome whatever it is that is holding them back, but I will not coerce them. That would rob them of the chance to learn to control themselves.

At times, I admit, my classroom may appear as (barely) controlled chaos, but things are not always what they seem: It is never really under my control, and I don't want it to be. I often feel as if I am riding a wave that could crash around me at any moment, but it is, I hope, a wave made of students' freedom and growing sense of responsibility.

If you would like to have a look at our Moodle site, just send me an email and I'll get you guest access.

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