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Student-Driven Learning: Pinpointing a Class Passion and Exploring it

Classroom Development

2/25/2022 | Erin Weisman

In fifth grade, I memorized the U.S. state capitals. For weeks, my friends and family shared stories of their experiences in these places with me, taught me catchy songs, and made up funny mnemonic devices to help me prepare for the summative assessment. Finally, I took the exam with cautious confidence and waited anxiously for a grade that would define a large percentage of my year-long average. When my teacher handed back the annotated copy of the test, I felt confused. I had successfully matched every state to their capital but made so many spelling errors that I had earned a failing mark. As an educator, I often draw on this memory when I design a new learning unit and ask myself the following questions.

What aspects of this topic are important to the students? 

We learn most effectively when we can find personal connections with new material. We internalize more complex ideas and ask probing questions when we feel we are adding information to an already-existing schema. In a preschool classroom, the most joyful and compelling exploration happens when it is student-driven. These steps will help select the focus of your cohort’s next line of inquiry:

  1. Observe their free play. What imaginative scenarios do they come back to time and time again? How are they naturally engaging in problem-solving with each other? Which games elicit complicated conversations?
  2. Find a common theme. Reflect on your observations and pinpoint a connecting thread.
  3. Identify why this passion is interesting and important to your students. What is happening in their lives at home that drives this curiosity? How are they adding to each other’s schemata on the topic? 

In years past, I observed many diverse group passions. Some cohorts have obvious interests like Outer Space or Construction. Other classes have seemingly varied fascinations. One year, after a few weeks of observation, I realized the commonality was not the topic, but rather the practice. Each student was interested in creating a problem and then solving it. 

In the block center, a small group would set a goal to build the “tallest AND skinniest tower ever”. At the easel, a budding partnership would agree to make a rainbow and experiment with color-mixing to ensure they had every hue. Even in the Library, two or three students would examine the books and fix the ones with rips or loose pages. With this in mind, I constructed a unit that could engage this passion for problem-solving and critical thinking. We spent the entire year as detectives, forensic scientists, and journalists exploring the idea of Mystery. 

What content is important for their academic development? 

Maria Montessori posited that “play is the work of the child”. It is the educator’s job to guide play so that it is engaging but also developmentally stimulating. Once you have selected the theme of your learning unit, then design the activities, conversations, and assessments to serve as opportunities for both independent play and concrete academic discovery. Weave your standardized milestones in with the diversity of your students’ creativity.

Throughout our Mystery Unit, we followed our young friends’ passion for investigating and puzzle-solving. Along the way, we also engaged in letter recognition as part of clue collecting, fine motor development and emergent science understanding through fingerprinting, and one-to-one number correspondence as we practiced sequencing our gathered information. With this method of curriculum design, your students will be prepared for their next school year and will have the seeds of internalized motivation.

How do I assess their understanding of those specific developments?

While the overarching theme connects all of your students, each student has their own distinct set of strengths, weaknesses, and acute interests within it. Assessment is a tool to gauge how effective your acquisitional activities are. Once the academic, executive, and social-emotional standards have been achieved through the lens of their passion, ensure that the assessment you design accurately collects that data.

Summative assessment occurs at the end of the unit. In a preschool classroom, we are not burdened by written exams, but rather have creative license to engage students in multi-sensory evaluation. The assessment goal is universal, but differentiated assessment offers opportunities for each learner to showcase their understanding in a way that is most effective for them.

The culmination of my Mystery Unit was solving where a beloved bear puppet had gone. After a year of solving various mysteries around our school, this one activated personal connection and invited all of my young friends to recall the strategies we had learned leading up to Bear-atrice’s disappearance. Some students interviewed adults on campus, some students scavenged for physical clues, other students researched bears.

Once all of this information was gathered using the academic skills for which I was assessing, the full group brainstormed a final project to solve the mystery. They decided to create “missing bear posters”. This served as the summative assessment. Every student engaged in writing and content recall to find our puppet friend.

Where do I go from here?

Throughout the exploration, the observation never stops. This helps educators monitor divergent themes and possible starting points for the next lines of inquiry. It is important to keep in mind that while categorizing and theme-building is helpful for our adult brain processes to stay organized, we must remind ourselves to remain flexible when exploring with our young learners. 

Perhaps your plan for the activity is centered around vehicles because that is in keeping with your previous play observations. This vehicle-focused provocation may inspire construction-themed play. This does not mean the activity was a failure. In fact, it means you awakened a new curiosity! Track the thought progression and identify the connection. This may be the actual theme you have been looking for.

The results of this type of data collection need to be documented for personal reflection, stakeholder understanding, and self-esteem development of your class community. Send descriptive notes to caregivers about why their children are exploring this topic, how it furthers their academic and social-emotional development, and what feels exciting to them as drivers of their own learning. Post photos of student process, student work, and small explanatory blurbs around your classroom both at the adult eyeline and at the children’s. Keep a record of your units for yourself to see how the focus has changed and grown over the course of the year.

Take time to reflect. Did my students feel they had agency over their study? Did they internalize information to which they felt connected? Was there academic and social-emotional growth? Were my assessments accurately gathering information about these achievements? The goal when pinpointing and exploring a class passion is to ignite a love of learning. The result is students feeling an internal locus of control and children who grow up to be independent and hard-working when they feel that hard work is rewarded more highly than accomplishing a seemingly arbitrary product. 

I will never misspell Des Moines or Juneau again, but what does a student really learn from that experience? Not to work hard, internalize content, and inquire further, but rather to memorize for a test and move on. Creating a learning space where children feel powerful is the best way to ensure they are eager consumers of new information for the rest of their lives. Pinpointing a class's passion and exploring it will give them the tools to do so.

Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.

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