The other day, I had coverage in a Grade 12 law class. Coverages are pretty typical for high school teachers, where we go and sit with a group of students left unsupervised by teacher absence. My responsibilities are minimal, reading out instructions and taking attendance.
Usually I like to engage with students, ask what they’re learning about and how it relates to their lives. On this day, we talked about the Constitution, whether it’s important, and if it affects us. I suggested we write a classroom constitution, but their enthusiasm dwindled and most students turned their attention to the desks.
After some time, one student spoke up to say she had finished the assignment. “That’s good”, I said.
“Well, what should I do now?” she asked.
I decided to draw three circles on the board.
Above the largest circle, I wrote ‘Lawyer’. Above the next two, both the same size, I wrote ‘Teacher’ and ‘Store Manager’.
“Who’s wealthiest?” I asked.
“The lawyer”, she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“And how do you know that?”
“Because they make the most money.” A few of her classmates nodded in agreement. The lawyer is the wealthiest.
Then I removed parts from each of the circles, so that only slivers of the first two circles remained, while a larger portion of the last circle could still be seen.
“Well, this particular lawyer spends most of her money on her car, and on restaurants, and on travel. And the teacher also consumes a large portion of her paycheque.”
“So the store manager is the wealthiest, because she’s got the most money left in her pocket,” agreed a few of the students.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Except the Store Manager took her savings and invested it in a poorly performing Pet Rock business. The Lawyer, she decided to keep her savings in the bank; but the Teacher, she invested her money in a small app company that’s recently been sold to Zynga for $300 million.”
The students were ready for me to get to the point. “In business, making money is all about using profit for developing the next project. How much you make, and even how much you spend, doesn’t determine future success as like how well you invest.
“And if that’s true, then it makes sense that more important than finishing your assignment, is answering the question, ‘What’s your investment?’”
“But sir, we don’t have any money.”
“I have some money,” said one boy. “I have a job at the grocery store.”
“Jobs are obviously a terrific way to make some money. But making money isn’t the only way to make investments. Every day, you’re ‘spending energy’ with the decisions you make.
“Some of the stuff you do is decided by someone else, just like at a job. But each day, you get 24 hours, and some of it goes to responsibilities and obligations, and some of it you use for living the day, but the things you build of your own inclination are the investments you’ve already started to make.”
The class had turned quiet again. Developing enterprising students has become a passion of mine, and I had assumed a bit of a pulpit.
“Listen, just consider the opportunities when you don’t have a job to do. Like once you’re done your assignment, or even if you’re not getting around to doing your assignment, ask the question, ‘how would I like to spend my day?” Those are probably some of things you should continue investing yourself in.
“Responsibilities are energy expenses. Just another part of life. And you’re sitting here with tools and assets. The projects you build speak to your values and offer a vision to your future.”
“But we don’t know what to do with ourselves.”
With the long weekend approaching, I thought to ask, “If money and distance were no object, how would you like to spend this coming weekend?”
Most sat quietly. These students did not have ongoing projects. A four-day holiday was approaching, but they did not see it as an opportunity to do the things they care about doing.
“Then maybe that’s something you can do this weekend. Make a list of all the things you hope to happen in your life. Then you’ll know how to spend the holiday weekends still to come. Or else take yourself for a walk to the park. Invite a friend. Collect some leaves.”
It seemed that I was full of ideas and possibilities, and it confirms my suspicion that my work with students is more about helping them identify the projects they’d like to invest themselves in, than in making sure we tick off all the boxes on the curriculum guides. In the weeks to come, I will outline a platform I’ve used in a variety of classroom contexts to engage the students I work with to take ownership of their own learning, while simultaneously ticking off the Ministry-mandated learning objectives.
Until then, please share your own thoughts and experiences related to student-directed learning platforms and making distinctions between teacher-mandated activities and student-investment in learning.