- The so-called ‘Ikea effect’ occurs when we feel more invested in something because we built it ourselves, as opposed to when something is just handed to us. Following the same principle, giving students a stake as designers and builders of their own educations could be a transformational way to make them more engaged, more excited, and more invested in maximizing their learning.
- We would all feel nervous receiving surgery from a doctor or crossing a bridge designed by an engineer who had decided themselves what they needed to learn. But even in more structured programs, there is vastly more room for student input, feedback and design than we currently see.
- Given the amount of time companies spend on gaining feedback from their customers to make better products, it seems bizarre that educational institutions don’t do more to try and learn from theirs, and investigate how their ‘products’ actually work for those who are supposed to benefit from them.
Learners are already doing this, all over the world
One well-established system where students have great freedom to design what they learn is New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Here, students build their own unique ‘concentration’ over four years, rather than completing a specific course or major, allowing them to combine classes from any of the NYU schools. Professor Lisa Daily, who teaches and advises students in Gallatin, noted how this system helps students reap the benefits of taking responsibility for their learning, which then produces graduates who go into the workforce with a self-motivated, proactive attitude.
At the 12-18 level, Templestowe College in Australia allows students and parents to build a five year plan of classes and subjects after their first year, deciding on 100% of their timetable from over 120 elective choices.
For younger years at the school, conventional homework is also replaced by documenting ten hours per week of home learning, which could take the form of practicing an instrument or a new language. When new suggestions arise from students, parents or teachers, the school’s rule is always to default to answering yes, unless the idea would take too much time, too much money, or negatively impact somebody else.
Does this empowerment of young people work beyond a group of students (and parents) who are in many ways self-selecting, and already high achievers?
Interestingly, the student-centred learning approach is also having positive results in schools which were previously underperforming. Pittsfield Middle High School was the lowest ranking school in New Hampshire, before undertaking a community backed switch to student centered learning in January 2012. Since then the greater autonomy given to students has already led to lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates and higher rates of attending college.
Few of the faculty or students who have joined NYU Abu Dhabi since 2016 would have guessed that the university’s core curriculum was redesigned by students in the late hours of the night, fuelled by hummus and Red Bull. Aware that the interdisciplinary core program needed to evolve, Professor Bryan Waterman held an open call for ideas from students, and the ‘Hack the Core’ event was set up. With no other interests beside designing a better curriculum for everyone, engineers brainstormed alongside musicians, and psychologists debated with historians about what the university’s core curriculum should entail, until several proposals were presented and voted upon in the early hours of the morning.
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You can also download our report, ‘From Ferment to Fusion’ where we look further at the challenges we set out in ‘Kindling the Flame’. We reflect on innovation and change, and we identify for each challenge a practical, coalition building, action.