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Students Learn When They're at the Center

Josephine Smith

When I ask people what values and skills they think should be instilled into children by the education system, I find that an overwhelming number think critical thinking and passion are the most important. 

They want to have a generation of learners who ask “Why?”  A generation that asks it when they don’t understand, when they disagree, when they want to understand someone different than themselves.   

This implies that somewhere along the way, despite their best intentions, schools are failing to give students these skills.  How?  

I think the answer is in the way classes are taught.  Most of my high school classes, especially those with more material, are lecture-based.  A lecture format leaves no room for interaction between students, or between students and teachers.  Questions and discussions are seen as distractions, and if the teacher allows them to develop, they won’t get through the lecture.  The kids will be missing material.  In a lecture classroom, some will indeed learn the material, and the rest will be able to focus enough to understand varying degrees of it.  But none will interact with the material.  None of them will develop those critical thinking skills.

If we want to see these values in students, we should design lessons that cultivate them.  Discussion-based classrooms where students read texts, then discuss what they think of them.  Math classrooms where students teach each other and work out problems together.  English classes where students interpret texts.  Science classes where they explore the “what-if’s” and do experiments together.  

My favorite classroom experience came in freshman year.  Every class debated on a history-related topic.  We researched for a week, then prepared speeches and had a formal debate.  The topic was whether teams with names involving the Crusaders should have to change them.  We had to research the Crusades, and think about history in a comprehensive way, consider all sides, then synthesize that into an argument and form an opinion.  Everyone had different insights.  Lots of students were involved in sports, and got really into it, talking about the culture that forms around a sports team and how important the name is to that culture.  I learned about my classmates and the material.

By the end, everyone had their speeches done.  It was the same class of students I had known all year, and many couldn’t have cared less.  Now, they were helping each other, regardless of personal opinion or official side. 

When our teacher returned from a week-long absence for the final debate, he was shocked.  He saw a room full of knowledgeable, passionate students, giving opinions and respecting each other.  Everyone had something to say, even kids who hadn’t written or said a word all year.  It was the most we learned and participated.

Admittedly, at first when we were left to ourselves, everyone was confused and didn’t know how to handle themselves.  We went overboard and did whatever we wanted.  But eventually that wore off, and we realized we wouldn’t get anything done unless we took the initiative ourselves.  Once we did, we found the lesson was fun and different.  It got us involved.  Teenagers love to argue, so the debate format successfully tricked us into being passionate about an assignment.

As a student, I would love to see more teachers take advantage of us as learning resources.  By talking to peers, we got different insights, and were forced to synthesize an opinion.  Most importantly, this exercise taught us how to ask “Why?”  When students were faced with an opinion different than their own, they asked “Why” and listened to the answer.  We researched outside of the limits of a textbook.  We evaluated the merit of different arguments and came to our own conclusions, which were often different than the ones we started with.  We taught ourselves how to learn. 

Josephine Smith is a senior at Gorham High School.  She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.