November 09, 2018

Mini Musings - Explorations and Student Directed Learning

by Steve Capone, 6th Grade History Teacher

I’m thrilled to be writing to you this week about Explorations Classes and to return to the theme of Limud L’shma (learning for the sake of learning). McGillis community members who don’t have students in the Middle School may not know the role played by Explorations in the learning experience at our institution. These classes embody Limud L’shma. I’ve been lucky this year to hit upon a good idea and - better yet - to have enthusiastic learners with whom to put the idea into practice.

Some years ago, while I was teaching with regularity at UVU, I attended a semester-long workshop focused on the concept of student-centered teaching. I worked for a year there to use the ideas we discussed in that workshop. Then, in 2013, I began teaching students of elementary age. In 2017, I joined the faculty at McGillis, and I began looking for ways to engage students in the context of a student-centered classroom. In Explorations, I get to do that in short, one-trimester bursts of creative energy, from both me and my students.

This trimester, my topic was The Cold War. I worried, “Where do I begin? It’s a massive topic. How can I be useful to my students?” I decided to trust the students to help me find answers to these questions.


On day one, I presented the students with options: sixty or so questions on the board, ranging from, “Who was Bert the Turtle?” to, “What makes a war ‘cold’?” and “Why did people in East Berlin want to ‘escape’ to the West?” We talked, ensuring everyone in the room could understand the questions, irrespective of each student’s content knowledge (I assumed that no one knew anything, in fact). We watched Churchill remark about an “Iron curtain descending across Europe” and Bert the Turtle duck and cover. Then I asked, “Which of these topics do you want to learn about? Do you want to hear more about the KGB/NKVD and the CIA, or do you want to learn about Radio Free Europe? Are you interested in the Korean Police Action or the Vietnam Conflict (and why we call what seem obviously to be full-blown wars by those odd names)?” I put it entirely in their hands.

Students told me that they wanted to learn about espionage, propaganda, and the nuclear arms race. This student choice informed the structure and delivery of the remainder of the course. Each week, there’d be an hour to two hours of content that I prepared – in a variety of media – to give us a shared base of knowledge. We took notes sometimes, but not often. There was no homework, excepting optional suggestions (that were truly optional). I built a Canvas page with a list of topic-categorized resources on a variety of topics. After the first hour to two hours of each class, the students had a third hour or more to do individual investigation. Then I’d ask them what they learned. About one-third of the way through the trimester, I asked students to meet with me for 30 minutes apiece to build a personalized, creative capstone project whose main requirement was that the student show us what they’d learned during the trimester.

The results were amazing. One student built a model of the Berlin Wall and reported on many different attempts to escape the East. Another pair of students wrote and recorded a podcast about radio propaganda. Students who sometimes would not have been engaged in other classes found ways to be engaged in Philosophy & History: The Cold War. I am proud of them, and I am grateful of the community we’ve built that permits students to make choices about their own learning.

For the entirety of the class, students took the lead. They were, as a result, engaged in the material. In the last week of class, I’ll be presenting students with an opportunity to take a test that I would have given to students had we taken a traditional approach to the material. I’m confident they’ll do better on that material than almost any student taking the standard approach.

I’ve got students who can tell you what M.A.D. is, what Sputnik had to do with competitive advantage between the two superpowers, what the major differences are between capitalism and communism, why the United States involved itself with Italian elections after WW2, and what the perceived missile gap of 1959-1960 was. These are not twelfth graders but sixth and seventh graders. They can explain why folks followed Joseph McCarthy in persecuting neighbors and friends, whatever those people’s ideas. They can tell you what the modern incarnation of the Cold War looks like, and what James Bond and George Smiley have in common with real intelligence operatives. It’s impressive. This is learning for the sake of learning on display.

My students have come to me on a Monday in a week when we had no explorations courses scheduled, saying, “I wish we had explorations this week!” Some of my students have voiced a fear that they won’t be able to take another explorations course from me. I’ve assured them that we can take the same approach to the Roman Empire or to World War One next year. I can’t wait.