What would teenagers want to learn, if we let them choose?

While I was researching for my book, Beat Boredom, a few years ago, I visited a high school that prides itself on student-directed, project-based learning. I was excited to see it, and after talking with the school’s passionate leader, I was predisposed to be impressed.

But when I got there, instead of seeing energized students researching topics of deep personal interest, what I saw was a lot of mundane activity. In my few hours of observation, students were mostly texting, knitting, chatting about social activities and talking about how to “log hours.”

I didn’t hear anyone posing interesting questions, talking about challenges or proposing solutions. I didn’t see any sign of deep cognitive engagement at all.

I was really disappointed.

So I shelved my notes on that visit. It wasn’t my goal to call out any teaching practices, but I wasn’t going to promote it either.

I didn’t think about that visit again until I started hearing buzz around the book, Empower, which some school districts are embracing for its simple message: What if you asked your students what they want to learn today?

The authors’ argument, which they proudly proclaim is NOT steeped in anything as dull as research, is that students who are liberated from our standards-based, top-down education system will flourish by pursuing their own questions.

It sounds so enticing. But will they?

What would our teenagers choose to learn if we set them free?

Would they want to learn how monetary policy can be used to address recessions? Would they want to learn how photosynthesis works? Would they want to learn the finer points of supporting an argument with primary source evidence? 

(Or would they want to learn how to win at Fortnite?)

I love the idea of student-centered learning, but there are a few big problems with going all in, like this book advocates:

  • There are some things students need to know, even if they don’t realize it, like the protections of the Bill of Rights and the scientific process. (Yes, scientific literacy is important even for non-scientists.) Maybe the list of required standards shouldn’t be as long as it is, but there IS a list, even in the era of Google.
  • Teenagers are too inexperienced to know what they want to know. Do we really believe that most adolescents are prescient enough to realize they might love molecular biology or macroeconomics? I didn’t know I would like econ until I took it in college. Part of our job as educators is to expose young people to the world of ideas and push them beyond their own bubbles. We lose that if we put them in charge.
  • We know learners benefit when they are challenged in the “zone of proximal development,” but that means engaging in productive struggle. Unfortunately, without significant guidance, most of us — teens included — prefer the path of least resistance. Some kids will push themselves, sure, but too many will be left behind.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to the idea of student-centered learning.

Just yesterday, I gave my psych students an open-ended experiment assignment, where they can choose their own research question. (Last year, for example, one group studied whether teens or young children perform better on the “unusual uses” test.)

I spend a great deal of time fostering teen entrepreneurship as well, and I’d argue that experience is as valuable as any AP course.

But abandoning all of our current practices to reorganize schools around student-directed inquiry? I don’t think that would bring the results we want. 

What if instead of embracing the extreme, we focused on building opportunities within our existing system for students to pursue their own inquiries? These inquiries could build on what they learn in class and add deep relevance to their high school experiences.

This research from Stanford, which illustrates how student-centered learning can help underserved populations, seems to support that approach. The examples provided show inquiries that grew out of coursework or internships, like students looking into a “criminal justice topic of their choosing” — rather than an all-out dumping of traditional curriculum.

So yes, let’s see what our students want to learn — but let’s not do it by giving up everything they need to learn.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom