Leaving Room for Unknown Possibilities: What We Can Learn from Child-Driven Education
What is child-driven education? Child-driven, or child-led, education describes an approach that tries to leave room (how much room varies) for the child to choose what interests, goals, and learning they will pursue. This philosophy, as espoused by educators such as John Holt, says that children (and really all of us of any age) learn best when we are intrinsically motivated by our own interest. All that is really required for learning and growing to occur (transformation) is a motivated learner and an interesting challenge or environment. Some really cool experiments in this idea have been conducted by Sugata Mitra with the “hole-in-the-wall” experiment where a computer was put in a wall in an area not-served by any formal schooling, and in the absence of any instruction children taught themselves how to use it and then used it to learn more.
Here at OUUC, our lifespan religious education programs are busy! This year’s 4th-5th grade Our Whole Lives class (that’s our sexuality education program) had 18 kids in it – our big classrooms actually felt a bit snug! Our nursery is consistently just under maximum capacity during the 11:00 worship service. We have had 23 kids (not all at the same time, thankfully!) attend our pre-K Spirit Play class on Sunday mornings so far this church year, and there are 24 children registered for our elementary grades Labyrinth Learning Class. Meanwhile, our Middle School group has 13 youth attending with remarkable consistency. While our High School group is small they are mighty: youth are volunteering as RE teachers, working in the nursery, serving on committees, working with Interfaith Works to organize an interfaith youth meeting, getting trained as peer chaplains, attending District Youth Conferences, making gifts to donate to Safe Place, organizing fundraisers and supply drives, and more – all while juggling heavy homework loads, the SAT’s, drivers ed, and other community involvement. And then we get to our Adult Education program! We had 130+ adults take at least one of our classes this year, with some classes having over 35 participants. And through all of this, we hope to open minds, fill hearts, and transform lives. We are growing and transforming here.
How can I as your Director of Lifespan Religious Education keep up with all of that? Well, goodness, I have so many plans! And Lists! And stated goals and outcomes! I have calendars, lesson plans, document sharing platforms, budgets, reports, meetings, shopping lists, storage closets, rolling carts, and teams of staff and volunteers to keep up with it all. Keeping track of all of that can feel like I just need to hold on tight. I can feel like I need to be in control. I need to know where we are going, to lay out the map. I need to be driving this truck.
Fortunately, the children in particular are good at reminding me otherwise. When I think I have a great story to illustrate one idea, they will find something unexpected in it. When the discussion questions are trying to support one learning outcome, the kids have a way of asking new questions that might take us down another path in that lesson. And when I already have the whole church year planned out, the kids may ask to do something completely different.
Theoretically, I love child-driven education. I absolutely believe that humans are already natural learners and meaning-makers, and will do this best when they have the freedom – that free and responsible search for truth and meaning we speak of in our UU Principles.
But I say theoretically. Theoretically because it is actually hard to leave the room for this free search, for this learner-driven process that can look like chaos. It can mean that we have to take a leap of faith – something that we UU’s might balk at! We have to trust the process, trust the learners, trust the people, trust the seeds that we plant that we may never be around to harvest. This makes child-driven, or people-driven, a challenge!
I was recently part of a training module (we call them “Renaissance Modules”) for religious educators on the topic of curriculum. The definition of curriculum that we were working with was “a course to be run”, and I like that definition. And yet, we all spoke of the difficulty of designing a single course for all our people and saying “this is the way”. The plan we lay out may be the right way for some, but not for all.
The final project for that training was to get in groups and design a curriculum together. We all had ideas, and through a consensus process formed up into little groups to work on them. I was very fortunate to have my idea – based on something our kids at OUUC have actually asked for – be chosen as a project. This is like getting to double-dip and use your homework in real-life! My group sat down to talk about how we would design a curriculum for a child-driven service project for elementary aged students. We were able to write a great Intro Lesson, and to lay out a plan for reflection and sharing with the congregation. But in the middle of our plan we had to simply write “and then we do whatever the kids want to do”. What if they chose something wacky? Well, we would try to help them do it.
The leader of the training pointed out our courage to put forth a plan like that. It does take a lot of courage, especially for someone who is held accountable for results, to say “I don’t know what we’ll end up doing”.
But that is exactly what I think we all – not just educators – need to leave more room for. We need to leave room for unknown possibilities. If we already know where we are going, how we are going to get there, and everything else, what is the point of the journey? We have to leave room for growth, for change, for new people and new ideas. We have to leave at least a little bit of the map blank. Because this keeps us vibrant, flexible, alive, and not just agents of transformation, but open to being transformed.
(This article was part of our latest issue of the OUUC Commons. Read the full newsletter here.)