Tie And Jeans

20% – Student Inquiry and Choice for 5th Graders

Last year, I presented at Educon on a half-baked idea to foster student choice and involvement in the middle school day. I stole the 20% title from Google, and blathered a bit about the self-reinforcing cycle of students moving from interest to play to product. It was, despite my poor preperation and boundless nerves, a good conversation between a bunch of interesting and commited educators (and Ed Journalists). But when the session was over, I was pretty much ready to walk away from the whole idea. Cool concept, presented it in public, everyone recognized that it was a crazy departure from “school norms” that wouldn’t fly in their environment. Another bit of progressive-ed fantasy on the bonfire.

On the drive home, a 5th grade teacher from my school, who had dropped by my session out of sheer polietness, said that she’d like to try implementing something like that in her class.

Crap. Now I have to actually support my progressive ed fantasy.

Wait a second, this is phenomonal. Now I actually get to live my progressive ed fantasy!

Over the last week, we introduced the process to the second batch of 5th graders. The hallways have been buzzing with crazy talk about a hundred ideas that have NOTHING to do with 5th grade curriculum or content, but everything to do with young people coming to grips with how they learn.

20% is not a project in the traditional sense. There is no due date, no mandatory subject matter, and there is no fixed set of required materials or tools. The overarching goal of the process is to inoculate in these enthusiastic and imaginative 5th graders the ability to transform an “this is cool” type of interest into an ongoing, productive passion.

This year, those initial interests range from WW2 battlefied tactics to clothing and fashion in colonial America to photography to video games and beyond. Yes, these are all impossibly broad and worryingly vauge. Have you talked to a 10yo recently? That’s how they see the world!

In the 20% classroom time and on the class wiki we’re trying to model how to DOCUMENT their developing interests. This is not a neat and orderly process for any student. They’re engaged in a constant back and forth conversation, digging deeper into WHAT they find fascinating and using specific questions to break apart the Big Idea into chunks that are manageably complex but still interesting. The core task of 20% is to have 5th graders make a “public” record of how they deal with all these smaller questions that lurk inside big ideas. It’s, sadly, not actually public becuase we haven’t decided how to handle student exposure to the real internet yet, but it’s open internally to all students and faculty. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

As a specific example, I’ll try to describe my experience with two 10-year old boys on Friday. During the class time, they had a shared word processing document open on each of their laptops, with a WW2 history/picture open between them. In 5th grade terms they were “writing a book,” which from an adult vantage point looked far more like a book report. They were taking a Big Idea that they liked and smushing it to fit a school-shaped hole. What they were doing didn’t have much appeal for them, but it seemed like the best way to have the teachers let them continue thinking and reading about the things they liked.

Through some pointed questioning, I pushed them to identify WHAT they found engaging about the subject. When they settled on machines, materials, and tactics, I suggested that they look for a way to focus on that aspect. (Newsflash! Boys like tanks!)

One of them suggested making a model battlefield, which seems like a better match for their interests than writing a book report. But despite their enthusiasm, they were really hesitant to embrace the idea. Surley this was just some trick and the teacher was going to pull some multiple choice quiz out in a few minutes. They couldn’t actually make building models their project, right?

Why not? There’s a huge number of open questions – which theater? which timeframe? which battle? what scale – both in terms of inches and in terms of military abstraction (unit vs. division vs battalion) ? What kind of material for the terrain? Commercial models? Papercraft? 3D printed?

While they explore these more material and practical concerns, I’m certain they’ll wind up with an equivalent set of historical concerns. Who were the men who fought and died here? What was the lasting impact of this battle/campaign on the region and civilan population? What makes this battle/campaign “important”? This investigation process, moving from tangible goal to research to new questions and back again, is the heart of 20%.

Even though they’re awash in questions, one of the core components of the 20% program is that you should always been making something. For 5th graders and adults alike, it’s often difficult to separate the idea of your final project and end-goal, the thing you *really* want to be making, from the process that it will take to reach that goal and all the things you can make along the way. For young people with no familiarity with participatory net culture, or even personal journaling outside of the diary/confessional mode, this is a huge cultural and developmental leap. In the minds of these two boys, their elaborate 4 meter square perfectly scaled model will just materialize one afternoon.

So I’m trying to model as I teach, showing that what we build along the way can often have as much importance as what the end product. For me, this gets a bit complicated. I want to see school culture shaped around student’s personal and individual interests. In order for that to happen, everyone will need to know how to develop an idea from the first inklings of “I think I kinda like this” into a self-documenting exploration. If you write it, it could be on the web. If you said it, it could be a video on the web. If you like a picture, like it on a public Flickr album. Make a trail of your thoughts and interests for your own benefit, but put it in (semi)public just to see what happens.

So, here’s some more documentation of my process to help kids become better explorers and documentarians of their own learning process. Yeah, it’s a bit meta. Welcome to my life.


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