Today I asked the following question on Twitter: “Anyone out there have learning that is truly student driven? Flesh out what it looks like for us.”  I got a great response from Jon Orech including the following awesome story of learning.  Jon was generous enough to let me cross-post the story here.  You can read the original on Jon’s blog Snapshots of Learning.

Embrace the Mess

We like to use catch phrases in education. How far can you read without coming across these: collaboration, project-based learning, formative assessment, authentic audience, or student-centered classroom. It seems that for many, these phrases become empty vessels–elaborate and  impressive, but containing little depth. Too often we talk in theory and assume that educators can fill in the details. I would like to share how I added flesh to these phrases in my sophomore English classroom (These methods can be applied to any discipline).

First, let me say that I am not a big fan of final exams in high school. Instead, I would prefer to see a Final Project. Assessing growth and learning is much more valid when measuring the development of a project over several weeks than on a ninety-minute test. Here’s what I did:

There were six weeks left of school, and one novel left to read: Lord of the Flies. Now, as much as I love teaching literature, Lord of the Flies is not on my top ten list to teach. Yes, I do realize the literary merit, but always struggled teaching the book. I decided to take this opportunity to try something different. Instead of a final exam, the students would complete a final project, where I would assess their skills on what I felt was important. I wanted them to do a project that would measure their success in:

· Cooperative learning
· Literary Analysis
· Inquiry Research
· Text marking
· Reading for purpose
· Peer teaching
· Literature circles
· Collaborative writing
· Creating a multi-media research project
· Proper documentation and citation

I began by placing students in heterogeneous groups of three, and passed out copies of Lord of the Flies. To each group, I gave a slip of paper with one of the following phrases:

· Freudian Psychology
· Biblical Allusions
· Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs
· Biography of Golding
· Allegory
These represented the five themes I would have “covered” in a more traditional teaching of the novel. I then told them that they were going to read the book on their own, with support from their group, through the lens of the particular theme or motif on the slip of paper. When they text marked (which they had done all year) it was to be from the perspective of that particular lens. Whenever they chose, they could meet to discuss issues in the book and help make meaning. There would be no study guide, no quizzes, and no vocabulary lists. The final product was to create a scholarly article online analyzing the particular theme and how it was illustrated in the text. We used a wiki as a vehicle to create these articles. Students were permitted to use whatever resources they could find, add appropriate, helpful images, and provide links to other related articles. In addition, groups were to supply two foundation questions relating to specific issues raised in the article. They were not to supply answers.
At first, the kids were a bit shocked. I had always tried to promote independence and developed activities that afforded them some autonomy…but not THIS much. As the weeks progressed, students read, discussed, researched, discussed some more and even consulted groups with the same theme in other classes via an online discussion board. They learned, struggled, disagreed, negotiated, and learned more; it was a messy six weeks. At certain times I gave them feedback directly on their wiki, suggesting ideas, praising good work, and posing questions, always posing questions.

The time came when the books were read, articles were written and foundation questions were asked. But what about a final assessment? Students needed to be well versed in all the themes. Students were to read the articles of the other groups and answer their foundation questions. What was created was a network of “experts” in one area who shared their expertise with the rest of a class; it resembled a “jigsaw on steroids.” The students were given three days to read, review, ask questions of each other via discussion boards or directly on the wiki. What I found was that during this phase, students had to defend their positions on the articles they wrote, which were often called into question by the other students. Of course I encouraged them to revise based on any new ideas they had. Yes, this was a messy three days as well. What a wonderful mess.

What I found is that through this process, students gained a much deeper understanding, asked more important questions, and spent more time researching than I had ever experienced before. Even after the assessments were collected, students still questioned, discussed, and defended views about the book, and human nature. When I surveyed the students afterwards, phrases like “hard work,” “on my own,” “worked to make,” and “I really understood,” kept popping up.
As I look back, I have never gotten such a response with using study guides, quizzes, and vocabulary lists. I will admit it was the hardest I had ever worked on an “independent” study project. What I found was that I was able to assess far more learning targets than I could with a timed test. Messy? Yes. Was it worth the mess? What do you think?

Thank you Jon for this inspiring Story of Learning!