Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What are we Teaching and Why? Student Topic choice programs: Common roadblocks



Why don't more schools offer student topic choice via courses or capstone programs?

Here are the most common roadblocks I've run into thus far.

School Size is Often a Factor

Many smaller schools that struggled to provide diverse course offerings went student choice courses / capstone routes long ago. Far less mid sized to larger schools have created personal choice threads for students.

Shifting programs in larger schools often creates many other ripples. Room scheduling, personnel shifts, etc. Unfortunately many larger schools stop there rather than seeing the changes through.

Union Labor Issues

'Union and labor issues' came up as a significant roadblock in some school struggling to create capstone programs. Their common questions they were debating were:


  • What discipline are these teachers teaching? 
  • What certification do they have?
  • Are they teaching something outside their certification?
  • How many students will they be supervising as part of the contract? 


Compartmentalized departments, carnegie units, student to teacher ratio have all been rethought by so many schools running successful capstone programs.

If union issues are the most significant roadblock, please go see a school with a robust course based / capstone program and their organizational structure to make it work. I can help you make contacts.

Finding Someone Willing to Mentor (Almost) Everything

Finding a teacher to 'teach anything' can be daunting. Don't think 'teaching a subject.' Think mentoring interests.

What skills do some of the best capstone mentors I've seen have? Here are a few:

  • diverse tech skill helps, no doubt
  • ability to develop / mentor personalized learning plans... in most any subject area
  • pedagogical development understanding / skill
  • mentoring skill
  • communication skill
  • writing skill and writing mentorship skill
  • good sense of humor
  • a growth plan

In 8 years in the open lab where I taught offering student topic choice I learned... a lot. I was determined to offer student choice... and to never let my inexperience in a given subject limit anyone. Learning along with students taking on projects for the first time was key, and endlessly interesting.

Mentoring over 1000 student projects and covering an incredibly diverse array of goals I've learned a lot. Each project I mentored in solar energy provided me with more and more resources to pass on. But... I wasn't the only one who passed on ideas and materials.


Students Build Off Work of Their Peers

In the topic choice courses I mentored students contributed their work to an archive for future students to build upon. Each student could choose if they wanted to publish to a worldwide audience, but publishing in the class archive was not optional.

Growth was often exponential. I absolutely loved this element in the Lab.


Connect Students with Professionals

We too often limit students to only studying what we have expertise for 'in house' or what's in the 'course of studies.' Imagine...

"No, you can't study solar energy until we have an expert on site."

Yup. Sounds crazy to me too. Especially when they can connect with experts outside school.

Connect students with experts! Break down the school as a citadel model.

Marvin Minsky, professor emeritus from MIT explains eloquently...

"Never worry about solving a problem. Just find the right person."

Promote students to connect with mentors in the real world in their field of interest. Promote collaboration outside school walls. There's a long list of benefits. Create some scaffolding to facilitate this or borrow from many schools that have already have it.


Wait, How Will this Appear on a Transcript?

I visited a three schools who said they didn't promote student choice or capstone programs because they couldn't settle on how it would appear on a transcript.

A lot of schools struggle with crafting course titles for college admissions. Here's are a couple  suggestions I've seen that work well:

Title the course well on a transcript:
Tech Research: PROJECT TITLE
ie. Tech Research: Independent Study, Solar Energy

If you're School Management System has character limits related to course titles, here's what colleges I interviewed (27) labeled unanimously as most effective:

Capstone: Solar Energy


Making the Choice: Course/s or Capstone?

I've advised some schools who proclaim they are on the fence to start with topic choice based courses that allow students to pursue personal choice. Offering the course multiple times per day is best... it will make it available to more students and you'll really be able to gauge interests.

The rLab model I developed and worked in featured 2 semester classes and two year long classes that met every other day all year.

Why choose one model or the other? Why not do both? Create a course based model as a pre-requisite to an advanced capstone program? I always felt the student choice lab I started could / would / should lead to a robust capstone program.

How valuable would this two phase approach be... compared to some of the requirements we have in place?

Valuable. Very valuable. Challenging. Rewarding. And the students in the program will constantly try to help it evolve.

Next up... some challenges you'll see in offering student topic choice.

<<<

Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

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