Making “The Olin Effect” Your Own

We talk a lot about “student agency” in these parts. But to be honest, most of what we label with those words are tepid substitutes for the real thing. As I Tweeted the other day, if these are the stories we’re writing in major education publications, the bar is set really low.

So, Thursday I sat in on a panel presentation that featured two students from Olin College of Engineering and two more from Hampshire College. The title was “Program Improvement Through Student Engagement,” which didn’t sound all that captivating. But since I’d heard about Olin a number of times, and since I had a younger family member who had just finished at Hampshire, and since my own presentation was scheduled for the next session in the room next door, I settled in to listen.

Really glad that I did.

For those not familiar with these two schools, they are outliers in the university narrative. Both give students almost total choice over the subjects they study and the ways the study them, to the point where kids create their own majors and most of their coursework. The kids at Hampshire then document their work in a digital portfolio, one of which you can see here. Dig around…it’s pretty interesting, and it will make you think about the possibilities. (This blog post is indicative of the work being done in the program.)

The Olin students shared their work to redesign their school library, and they both talked about how immersed they were in the work. But it was when they started talking about “The Olin Effect” that I got really interested:

The Olin Effect:
 “The heightened state of engagement, creativity, and productivity that comes from taking control of your own education.”

Love. That.

I quickly snapped a picture of their slide and started creating a slide of my own to drop into my keynote (which, at that point, started in about 20 minutes.)

I found it interesting that one of the students from Olin said that what both amazed him and what he appreciated the most was the level of trust that he received from his teachers and his fellow students. He said it was without question the foundation for the good work that he and his team did.

At the end, I asked the panel whether or not they had had the experience of “taking control of your own education” before they got to their respective colleges. The two from Hampshire both came from very traditional settings in high school, but the two Olin kids said that they came from smaller schools that were somewhat innovative in their approach. Still, they hadn’t been granted the amount of freedom and agency that they found when they went to college. I followed up with “Would you have like to have had that in high school?” and they both said something to the effect of “Um…absolutely!”

When I got to the Olin part of my own presentation, since much of my talk was about student agency, I asked my audience how many of them had ever experienced “The Olin Effect,” that flow and good work that comes out of doing something you really care about. Something that you CHOOSE to work on. Almost every hand went up. And then I made the point that everyone of us also encounters The Olin Effect when we’re like five and six years old and we’re in charge of our own explorations of the world. That time when the adults look at us and marvel at how intense and creative and persistent we are with our own learning. There’s not one among us who hasn’t lived it. And, importantly, there’s not a kid in our schools who hasn’t lived it at some point and who can’t live it again, given the freedom to do so.

But that’s the problem, right? “The Olin Effect” is the exception that happens when the conditions for powerful learning truly exist: freedom, choice, relevance, audience, passion, etc. In schools, unfortunately, it’s not the rule.

So here’s an idea. Make your own poster like the one above, but instead of “Olin,” put the name of your school in its place. And then figure out what you need to do to make your own students feel “The heightened state of engagement, creativity, and productivity that comes from taking control of your own education.”

I mean, seriously. Why wouldn’t we do that?

Originally published at Will

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