Saturday, July 23, 2011

Choice, Empowerment, and So What?

Seven years ago, we started an eighth-grade independent research project affectionately known as the IRP. The objectives for the project were to create a sense of independence and self-direction for students in a limited time frame and to build on the inherent value of “choice” in students’ self-guided learning. It was the sense of choice that empowered them to feel motivated and passionate about what they were learning. The original IRP project focused on areas within the American History curriculum but has since evolved into the IRP World with an emphasis on global change. We have presented the elements of this project at both the National Council for the Social Studies (2009) and the National Middle School Association (2010).
Design: ASIDE, 2011
The success of the project is largely based on the power of choice. Students get to pick the topic for their learning, design how they want to orally present the information to their peers using technology tools such as Prezi, and create an engaging handout with select information as an overview for their classmates. There is a direct connection between choice and empowerment that we continually see in the effort and focus they give to this project. Without a doubt, the students are motivated by a sense of purpose. They see an opportunity to work autonomously and take the responsibility of independence seriously.

The article, “The Responsibility Breakthrough” by ReLeah Cossett Lent in Educational Leadership (ASCD September 2010), builds a case around the idea of motivating students through responsibility. The author cites the work of Australian educator Brian Cambourne who maintains that there are eight conditions for literacy development. One of them is responsibility. For Cambourne, learners who do not have control over making their own decisions become disempowered. Lent also refers to Daniel Pink’s latest book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and here, too, she points out how Pink’s ideas about mastery, autonomy and purpose are the factors that create responsibility.
Design: ASIDE, 2011
The last component of the project, or the “so what?,” is not only the most important part of the process, but also the hardest part for our students to grapple with in their research. We want them to ask the question, “so what?” It is not the event itself that they report on, but its impact. How does it relate to change in that region of the world, whether societal, financial or otherwise? This project is not about straight reporting. Instead, it is built around the “so what?,” and they need to have this message clearly stated in their thesis.

In his work, “Encouraging Critically Engaged Citizens: So What?" (Independent School 2011), Mark Piechota pushes his students to develop the habit of questioning with the clear purpose of making engaged citizens who do not just passively accept issues as delivered by the media. Empowering students with the habit of asking “so what?” will ultimately help develop a keener sense of the world around them. Like Lent and Piechota, we want our students to take ownership over the design of their ideas and learning.
Design: ASIDE, 2011

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