In my senior year of high school, I took AP Physics C, where we had to use real calculus in physics for the first time. There were around 10 other students in the class.
Unfortunately, the veteran physics teacher of my school that had always taught the class had retired that same year. He was placed by well-intentioned physics teacher who admitted to not knowing much about Physics C, especially the E&M half. In fact, he had only really been selected from the rest of the faculty because he taught freshman physics and happened to know calculus. At the beginning of the year, this new teacher told us that we would have to work together to learn AP Physics C and prepare for the AP exam at the end of the year.
And so we did. In that year, we collectively taught ourselves physics. Anyone walking into the classroom that year would have seen a group of students huddled next to the whiteboard, some pointing at the board while explaining a concept, some working out the problems at their desks, and others listening and absorbing. We had a lot of roadblocks and confusion, especially once we got into the harder sections of the curriculum. But with the help of some YouTube videos, one or two of the brighter students in our class, and plenty of trial and error, we managed to figure out way through the material. Our only textbook was the Barron’s test prep guide for AP Physics C.
Almost all of us earned 4s and 5s on the AP exam that year.
To outsiders, it may have seemed that we were fumbling the entire time. Class went in many different directions, sometimes without reason. There was no clear voice of reason or instruction. Our learning was haphazard, a hodgepodge of different sources of material and mistakes.
For us, it was an environment unlike any other we had ever experienced. We worked together and functioned cohesively, with the collective goal of learning physics. Our learning moved at our pace, not some arbitrary set of deadlines for tests and assessments. Often our solutions were “out-of-the-box”, because we weren’t constrained by pre-existing methods and we weren’t afraid to ask “why not this way”. Most importantly, we weren’t afraid to make mistakes. We were all learning, so trial and error was a critical part of our process. It was certainly difficult, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun learning before.
That’s student-led education.
Student-led, or learner-driven, education gives student voice and choice in how they learn. Instead of simply sitting in a chair and listening to lectures for 8 hours per day, students actively construct and figure out their own learning, with the teacher serving as a resource and guiding figure for the classroom. And it’s becoming an increasingly common pedagogy in schools as teachers and administrators alike realize the benefits of giving students agency in their education.
How’s that different from traditional learning? Here’s a helpful infographic to explain the key differences:
According to Rebecca Wolfe, director of Jobs for the Future’s Students, student-centered learning helps “students develop their critical thinking skills while better preparing them for the real-world challenges of college and career.” In a time where people are increasingly realize that schools are out of touch with real world problems and necessary skills, that’s a powerful statement. Plenty of research shows that when students drive their learning, they have greater engagement and intrinsic motivation, set higher challenges for themselves, and solve problems better and more deeply.
Today, the world changes at a rate unprecedented in history. Industries are destroyed and created within years, not decades. The level of skill required in most jobs has gone up, not down. Corporate executives at the largest companies in the world have stated that the top skills for employees are concepts like complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, and more.
But it’s hard to develop those competencies when, as a student, you’re expected to sit down in a chair for 8 hours per day for 13 years and do what you’re told to do. Do math a certain way. Memorize facts and spit them out on a test. Don’t use tools like calculators and Wikipedia. The list goes on.
Beyond that, in the “real” world, people are in charge of their own learning and personal and career development. Our lives are built on our own intrinsic motivation, but we teach students with extrinsic motivation. Our education system needs to change, starting with how we teach and enable learning at our schools.
Fortunately, there are plenty of schools that are actively working towards that goal. One of the shining examples of student agency can be found in none other than Acton Academy, a network of K-12 private schools that extremely emphasize student agency in education. The school heavily promotes intrinsic motivations in students, believing that students with a strong sense of enthusiasm and excitement for their schooling learn better and more quickly than students who are simply told what to do and how to do it by teachers. In their schools, they foster “learner-driven communities.”
And giving students agency doesn’t have to be a disruptive change in the classroom, nor does it only happen in alternative or progressive schools. For example, let’s just say that a teacher is teaching her 4th grade class about butterflies. Instead of just lecturing them on the anatomy and behavior of butterflies all semester, the teacher gives them a project to do. She gives them 3 choices: create a Google Map that details the pathway monarch butterflies take every year during their migration, keep an illustrated daily record of the monarchs’ final stage of development and produce a scrapbook of their life cycle, or produce a blog post that presents evidence about the two sides of the debate over environmental protections for butterflies. Every student is able to choose an option that best suits their learning and communication style.
Every student has agency in their learning.
At Sora Schools, a progressive private high school in Atlanta where students to get to decide what and how they want to learn, we put student agency at the core of our educational experience. Students create their own curriculum and customize their learning to their goals and styles. If a student wants to learn math, they can drill through a textbook of math problems, watch Khan Academy videos and practice concepts, work on a project where they have to create a budget and balance the books for a business, write a paper and build a statistical model on the spread of malaria in northern Africa over the past couple hundred years, and anything else. It’s completely up to them. Our faculty serve as guidance counselors and facilitators for their learning.
Beyond that, students manage the school itself. In a democratic student government, they get to create their own school rules, allocate money to certain initiatives, classes, or experiences for the whole student body, and truly manage their own learner-driven community.
These types of experiences develop independence, empathy, and creativity in students. It allows them to have real impact in their work and empowers them to do extraordinary things, simply because they have autonomy and learn to explore the world around them beyond the narrow subjects and structure of traditional schools.
Most importantly, it makes learning fun again.
If you’re interested in learning more about Sora, please visit our website!