In teaching several High School classes, I started to notice an interesting trend among a few students. As the class flowed into a more discussion based format, their interests were piqued and great questions started to form. Unfortunately, these classes had a container, namely the content of the class. Against my instincts I found myself redirecting the conversation to align with the preordained material.
This experience led me to question how important content was, and what could be done to ensure that instead of cutting tangential thinking off, we could do the opposite and encourage it. Thus, a class with the name Systems Thinking was born.
Instead of producing content driven outcomes, Systems Thinking would employ a range of democratic principles and a vital skill: how to immerse yourself in the topic fully and without distraction for an allotted time.
Within the first class, I absolved myself from the formal role of teacher, and declared that while the adults in the room (we always had guests: parents, teachers, and interns) may have more experience they are equals in terms of mandating direction in this course. I went through question generation ,mechanics on how we would employ democracy in our class, and the process of self evaluation which would ultimately determine the students’ grades. Looking around, I recognized the students were processing the ride they were in for: greater agency to learn on their terms, but greater responsibility in how they learned.
The second class was where the structure would begin to prove its worth. While in principle all these ideas would lead to greater engagement and ease in authentic learning, the class itself had never been tested. I had to trust that the students would react positively to this form of learning, and that by relinquishing control I was in fact providing greater opportunity for students to learn.
Each class started with a vote, choosing among questions generated by the students themselves. The first question to be dissected and discussed was “Are we alone in the universe?”. I had no idea where this would lead.
Students broke into self-chosen groups (or to work alone if that suited them). They understood that for an hour they were to attempt to keep the question relevant. Tangential thinking was encouraged, but ultimately it was agreed that students should be able to trace their line of thought back to the original question if challenged.
An hour later, the class let out a collective sigh as our Systems Thinking session came to close. However, the conversations were far from complete. Following a personal reflection on their engagement, we had a group discussion on any aspect the students wished to raise. Some focussed on their discussion, and the connections they built as a group. Others focussed on the process, discussing where challenges were found in maintaining focus, and how we may overcome these.
The subsequent classes flowed ever more smoothly, and as an educator I was able to free myself from managing students and move into a role of sharing in the experience, influencing direction of conversation, and encouraging new strategies on how to view complex systems.
How successful was this class? Well, the model certainly provided agency, and through this enlistment of the students. A strangely awkward situation best summarizes the power of such a model: On multiple occasions, as I call class adjourned a number of students have been compelled to clap, only to kind of stop and realize they are applauding a class they take in school.