Cutting Content to Make Room for Learning

But writing “My Pragmatic Journey…” wasn’t just an exercise, it served as a clarification of my values and my role as a teacher.


7 min read
Cutting Content to Make Room for Learning
I went from being a micromanager of student behaviors directed at teacher-focused outcomes, dreading each class period and waiting to see how these students could screw up my lesson plan, to a learning partner, sharing in the joy of learning with students, talking openly with them about their learning with no evaluative agenda, and learning alongside and from them as a result. I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

This was the closing argument for an article I wrote back in August called “My Pragmatic Journey to Voice & Choice in the Classroom” (recently re-published here for the Human Restoration Project) about how I turned over part of my World History classroom to students and reinterpreted my pedagogical approach to classroom teaching, resuscitating my career in the process. This approach for my sophomores demanded agency and authentic teacher-student partnerships, and it minimized required content and the co-requisite grading regimen. I never knew school could actually be like this.

When I wrote this back in August I was in the process of planning for a schedule that had me teaching 5 sections of senior-level Economics. I felt an enormous amount of pressure: these were the very same students whose creativity I was reflecting on in “My Pragmatic Journey…”, and this is one of the last required classes in the social sciences these students would be taking before graduation — maybe the only economics class they would ever take.

But writing “My Pragmatic Journey…” wasn’t just an exercise, it served as a clarification of my values and my role as a teacher. It also reframed for me the purpose of education and, frankly, it defined my newest challenge: What does an economics course look like that engages in good faith with a pedagogy that honors student agency and voice while balancing the adult desire and my obligations, through the curriculum, to cultivate some level of economic and financial literacy?

For all the talk about what education could or should look like, here’s what students in my classroom are actually doing. If “My Pragmatic Journey…” described why I decided to embrace student voice and choice, the goal of this article is to describe how I used — and am using — a project-based learning (PBL) lens to cut content and make room for learning. This has been a semester-long process, and though the work is not done, we’ve done a lot and it has been, like all real learning, an iterative and messy process!

The goal of this article is to describe how I used — and am using — a PBL lens to cut content and make room for real learning.

So just after some introductory activities about scarcity, automation, and the future of work, but before we got to anything to do with curriculum, gradebook categories, purpose statements, or standard rubrics, I thought I would take the risk and just…ask students what they wanted to know: What about our community, our state, or the world would you want to connect to or know more about? Here’s a sample of what they told me:

“I would connect with the young kids in our community because they will be the ones to take over when we are done.”
“How money works (taxes, loans, income), also how the government got so far in debt.”
“How to live a simple and easy life”
“Learning about how non-profit organizations and how they work.”
“How to live after college.”
“Filing taxes, how to live as an adult/after college, and how to find what you want to go into career wise.”
“I would want to connect to nature.”
“How entrepreneurs find the money to start their business”
“How growing the town works and where to put stuff and when.”
“How the laws in our community affect our economy.”
“Insurance and why it can be helpful yet so dumb.”

This was the initial spark before a more formal brainstorming process that followed established PBL practices, drawing from conversations with my instructional coaches and materials from the Buck Institute. The first step before students began their semester-long “Economic Engagement Project” was a research agreement and a conference with me that had one unique demand: an explicit Community Connection. What part of our local, state, national, or global community are you going to connect to in the course of your research? What contacts are you going to make in the process of putting together a product? What network are you going to need to rely on to achieve your goal?

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Pictured: Economic Engagement Agreement: Students wrote up a research contract and conferenced with me to approve their plan.

In an age of silos, both virtual and real-life, so much of what happens in school is not just done in isolation from other students and disciplines but done in isolation from the rest of the community. This “Economic Engagement Project” is part of what I would I would like to see as a model of education that is in and of the world rather than preparation for it, so it’s important to communicate to students how we are going to use the time we have together as an opportunity to think and grow and learn collectively from and for each other. I see the purpose of PBL work not as an exciting vehicle for content in lieu of an exam but as a way to grow community engagement — to reach outside of our silo and make at least one meaningful connection to something outside the walls of school. After all, our students are going to spend a lot more time outside of this place than inside it.

My role as teacher has also necessarily shifted as I’ve spent hundreds of minutes of class time partnering with students to unpack personal networks, find industry contacts, write phone interview scripts, follow up with e-mails ignored by elected officials, interpret student-collected data, and troubleshoot the dead-ends which conspire to stop the process.

Now — 12 weeks into the semester — after dozens of informal conferences, formal Work Reports, written scripts for phone calls and e-mail interviews, and data gathered from their peers, adults, and community members through Google Forms, here’s what some students are up to:

  • A student with a rare blood type is passionate about a recent sales tax put on blood donations and is working to gather information from legislators and experts to advocate for its repeal.
  • Iowans for a Greener Death is an advocacy/awareness group started by a student wanting to change norms, practices, and laws around death and dying in America starting in his home state.
  • A Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist is an exploration of the requirements and experience of the practice of physical therapy. This student wants to go into the field and interviewed a local PT for her project.
  • Impact of Urban/Suburban Development on the Environment: After a bout of extreme summer weather, this group is talking to city officials and planners about the impact of and interaction between suburban growth and a changing climate.
  • Organic Honey: What’s the Buzz About? This student is passionate about the issue of colony collapse and sustainable bee-keeping practices. She has interviewed a local organic honey farmer about their practices and plans on teaching the class about her findings — with free samples!
  • What would be the economic & social impact of only using renewable resources? This student has contacted state renewable energy associations and groups, and she is going to use her experience in graphic design to create a poster series highlighting our state’s renewable energy future.
  • One pair of students working to understand food manufacturing and processing walked away with a lesson in clarity, as they were told firmly by a contact at General Mills that, no, they can’t have the recipe for Lucky Charms.
So how did I grade all of this? Well, I didn’t, really. I didn’t need to, and I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding-versus meeting-and-not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before.
My Pragmatic Journey….

Some of these products-in-progress are class presentations to peers —a conference model that doesn’t look dissimilar to how professional research is shared in the “real world” — others are physical products, while others still are created and shared digitally: websites, blogs, etc. However they connect their product to their audience, they will also be soliciting some feedback from their audience to gauge how and whether they were able to meet the goal/purpose of their project. Yes, some individuals and groups are writing research papers, but even these will go through a feedback process that involves teacher- and peer-review!

As I finish writing this the day before Thanksgiving Break, the first group is scheduled to present their findings to their research question: “Is student loan debt a problem for college students in America?" These girls interviewed current and former college students to gather personal stories about the impact of student loan debt to supplement a broader research base about student loan debt both in Iowa and throughout the country. After they present their research and peers give feedback on their work, I’ll sit down with them one last time to process how it went, whether or not they reached their goal, and what could have gone better.

Economic engagement isn’t optional in the adult world outside of school any more than civic engagement is; it’s not even optional for most students at this point in their lives.

There isn’t a grading scale or a standard rubric for economic engagement. Economic engagement isn’t optional in the adult world outside of school any more than civic engagement is; it’s not even optional for most students at this point in their lives. They are voters, consumers, employees, debtors, and family and community members — some even have kids of their own! We can’t expect them to wait until after graduation, where the stakes are much higher, to begin to answer the questions they have now about how they are going fit into the world: “How to live a simple and easy life”, “How to live after college.”, “Filing taxes, how to live as an adult/after college, and how to find what you want to go into career wise.”, “I would want to connect to nature.”, “How entrepreneurs find the money to start their business”, “How growing the town works and where to put stuff and when.”, “How the laws in our community affect our economy.”

We can start by giving them time and non-evaluative adult support to explore these questions in a low-stakes present. The curriculum can wait; the students in front of you wanting to understand how to be adults now, can’t.

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