by Monica Snellings
What will it take for kids to "own" their learning? What will motivate students to step up and take charge of their education? Teachers know just telling students how really, really important learning is does not work.
We decided to think about it from the kid's perspective. Schoolwork must seem like just a whole lot of stuff adults want kids to master but why isn't exactly clear to them. The ability to see the consequences of choices today for a very distant tomorrow, say age 25—when you are only 10—has got to be a bit baffling. That’s what we at Inquiring Minds have been asking ourselves.
And then we thought, rather than speculate: Let's ask students themselves about "The Future." What is on their minds? Have they thought about the future at all? How specific and concrete are their thoughts? We knew the kinds of answers we might get would depend on the age of the students we asked.
The results were surprising!
First we asked ourselves; at what age do kids typically develop the ability to see beyond their own homes, schools, communities into the world at large? At what age is their self-identity strong enough to plan ahead, to begin to know this is who I am. This is what I like. This is what I am good at. This is what I am interested in. Developmental indicators suggest that around age nine was a good place to start.
We wrote up a fun tool, a "MindLib" (technically called a "cultural probe" in the design research world) and approached Ms. La'Vina Dixon and her 5th grade class at PS 20 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a day when Social Studies was on the schedule. She was immediately on board with the exercise. We asked her if she thought she would learn anything new about her students. She was uncertain but curious. We entitled our probe "Imagine the Future" (see Fun Stuff for a downloadable PDF). Ms. Dixon opened the exercise by starting a conversation with her students. We sat in a corner and observed.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?", Ms. Dixon asked. This was easy and elicited a lot of responses—"I want to be a doctor!" "A musician!" "I want to be an FBI guy!" "I want to be a wrestler!" "An artist!" "A fashion designer!" "A math professor!"
Then she asked, "What skills will you need? What tools will you need in your tool box?" This was harder for the students to answer. They looked thoughtful. Throughout the dialogue students stayed engaged. Then we handed out our "Imagine the Future MadLib" for each of them to fill in. It started with "When I am grown up I will be…." and an amazing thing happened.
The room was silent for an unheard of 15 minutes as each student filled out the probe.
After we collected the completed forms. Ms. Dixon led a follow-up discussion asking her students what they thought about the exercise. One child said, "It was challenging. No one has ever asked me these kinds of questions." Ms. Dixon then asked. "Who would this information be important to? Who should know this about you?" One quiet child said, "It would be important for our parents and our teachers to know so they can provide the support we need to be successful and reach our dreams." And finally one boy said quietly, "I liked it because even though I did not get to speak before, I was heard."
The class then began an impromptu discussion on how to redesign their classroom space to accommodate the things they need to support their areas of interest. We were impressed by how solicitous they were of each others' passions—making suggestions not just for themselves but for others.
What we learned from this 30 minute exercise is that students want to be heard and they do have ideas about what they need. The act of being asked was enlightening, empowering. It informed Ms. Dixon about each of her students in important ways: They can each imagine a bright future, with them in it.
Download Imagine the Future probe under Lab Shop.