Reflections on School from a Student and His Teacher

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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stereoscopeGuest Post by Ethan Fedor and Blogger Ben Smith

From a student’s point of view …

Hi all. I recently graduated from a small private school in Utah and I would not hesitate to tell you that the education I received — despite Utah’s reputation — was top notch.  I was taught everything from literary classics to differential calculus, and because of the brilliant teaching staff at my school, I even managed to retain most of that information and put it to use on tests like the SAT or APs.

Over time my classmates and I learned about this, that, and the other and became very good at gaming the system. We became aware that our grades were based exclusively on how well we followed directions and how much knowledge we could cram into our heads. I, however, was never a fan of this system.

One thing everyone should know about me is that I love learning. More particularly, I love learning about things that I find interesting, and things that I can use in everyday life. When an English teacher assigns me a paper on a book we’ve just read with detailed instructions, I get bored, don’t try very hard, and generally don’t do well.

While my English teachers have taught me how to deal with abstract concepts and write with proper mechanics, they neglected to teach me “real world” writing. As a result, I can analyze poetry quite well but can’t write a job resume. I will confess that writing is writing and there is crossover, but I wish I had been better prepared for the more relevant disciplines of writing.

I admit that I may be slightly biased, as I have always been more of a science person anyway, but I always prefer the classes that offer me creative freedom. In physics we learned about electricity, magnetism, and the right-hand-rule. My teacher knew I had a grasp on the subject and gave me class time to do some tinkering of my own.

A week later I showed up to class and got to impress everyone with a functional miniature rail gun. On a separate occasion my photography teacher offered to give me some slack on my grades when I started building stereographic pinhole cameras and stereoscopes to match. In this regard I love being presented with problems to solve and left to my own resources to solve them.

So that’s who I am, now I’ll try and give some advice for those interested. If you are a student who is anything like me, I advise focusing on whatever it is that interests you. If you’re lucky enough, teachers will understand your situation and work with you. If not, invent your own projects. I like to think of it like this: the things you learn, whether they be in class or general life experiences, provide you with bits and pieces of knowledge that you can use in a creative or problem solving process. You know more than you think you do; it’s just application you have to worry about. Search around online for something that would challenge you and have at it.

For teachers and administrators my advice is similar. Highly structured teaching is great for standardized tests and getting students into good colleges; however, it is not great at preparing them for everything else. Also, I know how cliché this has become, but everybody learns differently, and I think it is important to be accommodating of different learning styles.

Secondly, I would like to see our educational system shy away from the APs. They are a one-sided, narrow-minded way of teaching a subject that allows little to no variety. Lastly and most importantly, students need to learn how to be inventive and think on their own accord. I would definitely recommend letting student fend for themselves every once in a while and learn with their own intuition.

So all of you still here, thank you for bearing with me. That was my 2 cents worth.

From a teacher’s point of view …

What does a hands-on, technology-infused, and self-motivated student look like?

Ethan.

Ethan is one of those kids who, despite the best efforts of the educational system, still knows how to ask effective questions.  Ethan sees education as an ongoing process and a journey to be relished.  Ethan understands the value of failure and the rigor required of the creative process.

Over the past year, Ethan’s questions have led him to innovate and design some really impressive things.  Ethan has:

  • Designed and built his own machinery and process for making his own skis.
  • Created a miniature rail gun from old capacitors from my photography supplies.
  • Built a stereoscopic pinhole camera and built a mirrored design to view it.

At the end of another school year, I enjoy reflecting on kids like Ethan.  What is sad to me is that Ethan is such a rare find.  We need to encourage educators and students who are willing to risk trying new things in order to make meaningful change.  Infusing the creative process into our curriculum requires four things:

  1. MODEL – As educators we must fist and foremost show our students that we are constantly asking questions, trying and failing, and searching for innovative ways to learn.
  2. GUIDE – Students cannot be expected to have innovative skills.  They must be taught to think.  There are great examples breaking the creative process down to understandable steps.  Take a look at the scientific method.
  3. TRUST – It is difficult to loosen the reins, but students need to be allowed to fail, to work hard and to experience the messiness of the learning process.  We need to be able to trust that much of what we try will not work the first time either.
  4. BE REAL – Projects, assignments, and tasks that are based in the real world and have relevance to student’s lives.  Make sure kids have the opportunity to drive as much of the decision process as possible.

I’m excited for Ethan, who is headed off to study engineering.  I’m also optimistic about the school year to come.

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