A Thought Experiment for Imagining Student-directed Learning Environments

What if someone provided you with unlimited resources to design a brand new school, but with a few restrictions? First, you were not allowed to reference a single set of state, national, or other standards?  Second, you could not use any textbooks or existing curricula, and students needed to be directly involved in designing the school. It can be whatever you and the students dream up as long as it helps them grow as learners and equips them to face the challenges and opportunities of life and learning in a constantly changing contemporary world.  This is the sort of thought experiment that Neil Postman created in 1971 when he wrote the following.

“Suppose all of the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared. Suppose all of the standardized tests — city-wide, state-wide, and national — were lost. In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this “catastrophe” into an opportunity to increase the relevance of schools. What would you do? We have a possibility for you to consider: suppose that you decide to have the entire “curriculum” consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly, from the point of view of the students. In order to get still closer to reality, add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and future. …What questions would you have on your list?” – Neil Postman in Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I’ve read and re-read Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and this quote remains the most engaging, inspiring, and provocative for me.  In the text, Postman leaves a blank page following this section, inviting the readers to start their own list of questions.  I’ve done this thought experiment over and over, and my questions end up different each time.  What remains the same is that I finish the list, look at it with excitement, and dream of learning organizations that are empowered by this sort of inquiry.  I continue to encourage people to try it for themselves. If you are a parent, consider doing with your children. If you are a teacher, how about trying it out as a learning activity with the students?  Or, if you are a school leader, what if you invited the teachers to create and share their lists with one another.  This simple activity has the power to inspire and open our eyes to the possibilities of schools, homes and other learning environments as places of student-centered inquiry, refreshed with relevance and dripping with engagement.  I’m not suggesting that every school or home-based learning environment abandon their existing curriculum (although so have decided to do so with fascinating results).  I realize that doing so is not realistic or desirable for most.  We can still benefit from this activity.  What if we simply used an exercise like this to consider how we might infuse existing learning environments with a bit more inquiry?

By the way, if you try this experiment for yourself or with others, I’d love to hear some of the results.