SOLE Challenge: Andrew Fersch

Attempting to figure out the ‘best’ way for a group of students to learn is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced as a teacher. This is because, regardless of how much emphasis is placed on standardizing testing and teaching, children are actually human beings, and as such, their interests, skills, and learning styles vary as greatly as they do with adults. The SOLE Challenge offered me as a teacher an opportunity to continue the experimenting that I’ve already begun in my classrooms over the years but with a different set of guidelines. More importantly, it afforded me an opportunity to provide a unique experience to a group of young people which garnered a great deal of genuine excitement about learning – something that is meaningful to all dedicated teachers.

The Challenge, which was different than anything I’ve ever done before as a teacher, was a learning experience for everyone involved. Although I have allowed students to work extensively on ‘Choice Projects’ (a topic of their choosing tied to standards that they individually needed practice or instruction in), I have never before done it without any real end goal or expectation in mind other than for the students to try to answer the question to the best of their ability and share that information with the rest of us. Another major challenge was letting go – even when I’ve assigned choice projects and had students work diligently on them for months, I’ve always been available as a back-up resource, readily available to help wherever I’m needed or to guide people back on track if they get distracted. The third major difference was this was the first time as a teacher that I’ve ever answered a question by saying ‘No, you may not go look it up in a book’, which felt very counter-intuitive since it’s always been a treat to me when a child wants to go find out more.

Coming up with big questions started slowly but it wasn’t long before they had far too many and were having a difficult time paring the list down to only two. They wanted to study about evolution, God, the ocean, cloning, stereotypes, gravity, the economy, and so much more. Young people are clearly interested in learning, it’s just a matter of giving them a little say in what they want to learn – something that was noticeably a new experience for them. They eventually settled on ‘Will the human race ever go extinct?’ and ‘Why do we judge an object based on its name?’

Throughout the experience, some things became immediately clear, and some things weren’t clear until the end when they presented their answers to the questions. It was clear that they’ve had little experience using the internet for anything other than basic web-browsing and that they had little to no idea where to find information, let alone reliable and reputable information. Yahoo!Answers was treated as if it were run by experts, Wikipedia as if it were an encyclopedia. Little depth was achieved by using these, and, without direction, more often than not the students opted to write down information that they were later not able to explain than to actually take the time (which they had) to discover what certain words meant, or how certain processes worked.

It was also immediately clear that, even as a teacher who affords children a great deal of freedom, that I still don’t always allow them that freedom enough. This was a group of volunteer students, young people dedicated to the idea of learning and trying something new – an ideal group of test subjects. With a few more guidelines in place and a bit more direct instruction on how to really utilize the information that the internet possesses, these children could likely have learned exponentially more than they did – and they learned a lot. Other than passing thoughts about the two topics, no one had any real knowledge about the topic before beginning – and in less than five hours, they learned a huge amount, without any direction or guidance. The question this posed to me was: are we using our time in school wisely now, if this is how much a group of eight 12-year olds can accomplish in five hours? If students were prepared with the skills necessary to study in this manner on their own, what might they accomplish if left to their own devices, with only a teacher there as guidance and support?

After the experience, the children thanked me – every single one. They’d just spent two very long afternoons in school after a full day of classes. They spent this time glued to a computer screen, trying to answer a really big question, without my help, and they thanked me. Young people want to be challenged – they want to be pushed, they want people to expect a great deal from them, and they want to meet those expectations. This isn’t new knowledge per se, but the SOLE Challenge reinforced this for me in a way that traditional classrooms don’t always do.

While reflecting on the experience, the consensus from the students was that the freedom was a challenge but also incredibly rewarding. There were also a number of comments about how they would love to choose what they learn in school but that they might learn more with a little more guidance. And overall, everyone not only felt they learned something, but they were proud of their hard work and themselves. The SOLE Challenge supports freedom of choice in education, high expectations, unique learning styles, group work, and would be an exceptional part of a curriculum which focuses more on teaching how to learn than what to learn.