Engaging kids in the ongoing experiment

Almost fifteen years ago, I was sitting in the main auditorium at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, getting ready to start my sophomore year at a public, residential magnet school that billed itself as a "pioneering educational community." What I remember most is how much the dean of students talked about the possibility of failure during that orientation speech. She repeatedly drove home the fact that IMSA was a laboratory, that the things we tried there ? curriculum, instructional methods, even our ways of living together as a community ? might actually leave us worse off than if we'd stayed in our home schools. If we bought into this, though, these experiments could provide a lot of value not only to us but to schools around the state and across the country. It was far and away the most exciting moment of my young life.

Liam's post earlier made me think of this moment. I take his point that the subjects of experiments in education are kids who depend on adults for a good education and often can't recover from disastrous experiences at school. Even if the imperfect solutions found through such experiments can be brought to meaningful scale and used successfully for a while, the cost of failure can be high.

School kids can weather innovative departures from the status quo better than adults, though. Human children are blessed with innate curiosity ? a trait our educational system seems uniquely efficient at driving out of them in many cases. Adults have a lot more to lose from experimental ideas ? jobs, contracts for services, political power.

The kinds of experiments that have been spectacular failures ? the laptop fad, open classrooms, and so forth ? also seem tailored to scratch adult itches. At the risk of sounding Pollyanna about children's engagement and curiosity, perhaps the issue is experimenting on children rather than constructing experiments that are responsive to results and involve students in something important. This works better the more awareness and agency kids have, to be sure. But high stakes are no argument against continuous experimentation and improvement. They're just an argument for getting the scope and process of that experimentation right.

? Chris Tessone

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