This is not what you usually hear from middle school students. In fact, sometimes we get excited if they remember there was homework. But this is what an 8th grader recently said to his science teacher. Why? What was it about this homework assignment that made it stand out above all others?
"I was doing something that was just right for me."
If you are like me, you are imagining that his teacher stayed up to all hours searching, curating and refining an individualized learning path for each of her 120 students. After all, sometimes when we hear the term "personalized learning" this is how it is described. Students coming to school and getting a series of assignments that are designed for their ability level and current achievement. These programs are very impressive and often require a major fiscal investment from the school. I think this can be a very powerful part of learning and look forward to working with teachers to develop some lessons and units this way.
So what had this teacher done instead?
"Find a video, a cartoon, a simulation, a website that explains this concept in a way that makes sense to you."
Brilliant! The students found loads of excellent materials and posted to her Google Classroom. She shared that students that never hand in homework, submitted cool resources. And, she now has loads of great resources for when she teaches this concept next year. And because students had found materials that applied to their learning styles and needs, they were able to learn a concept that they had found challenging.
So, why did students respond so well to this activity? My thought is that it is personalized learning, just with a different definition than we've become accustomed to. In this case, instead of a student being handed a series of assignments that someone else (or something else) has decided are right for him or her, he or she gets to be the one to say what learning resource meets his or her needs and interests. Students have the opportunity to create a meaningful learning experience and own their own learning. This reminds me of what has been termed the "IKEA effect." Mike Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely found that when participants in their study put together furniture, they placed it at a higher value than similar furniture that was store-assembled.
So much of what students do in school happens to them. They walk into class and wait to see what the teacher asks them to do, they go home and work on homework the teacher assigned, they take tests when the teacher says. Students today are hungry for the opportunity to contribute, they way they do when they build their own levels on Geometry Dash, or code mods in Minecraft or post their photography on Instagram. Crowdsourcing is a way to shift this dynamic. Now students have a chance to contribute to the learning plan. Someone is asking them what they think and how they want to learn.
Give it a try. Not everyday, every topic, of course. We know, as teachers, that we offer expertise and wisdom that our students don't yet have, but why not give them a chance to contribute to their learning plan?