A few years ago, I attended the Exeter Humanities Institute. One of the most important things that I learned that year was to trust the students. In the context of the Institute, the trust was that students would find their own ways out of those awkward silent lulls that can arise during Harkness discussions. Our instructor, Kwasi Boadi, told us to trust the silence and trust the students. We teachers must resist the urge to rescue students and set them on the path that we deem correct.
Kwasi’s advice has changed the way I teach. It has also influenced me greatly as I go through the 20% Project with my students. I made a secret commitment to trust whatever the students came up with for their projects. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t or didn’t help with honing ideas; it just means that I vowed–to myself–not to interfere with the essence of their ideas. And let me tell you, that wasn’t easy. There was more than one project idea that struck me dumb. That’s when the “trust the students” strategy really paid off. I gave the students time to think through their initial plans and to do some initial research. The results have been impressive for the students and for me.
For example, I have one student who told me that he wanted to go Bigfooting. I thought he was making fun of the project or just being silly. Of course, this didn’t make sense because this student is at the top of his class. As it turns out, there are Big Foot clubs and societies all over the world. They do extensive research on terrain, weather conditions, and “sightings.” This student is now planning a Bigfooting trip in upstate New York.
Then there are the Brotatoes, 4 boys who want to break a world record for the most mashed potatoes in one serving. Again, my initial reaction was skepticism. However, the project is actually an enormous lesson in business planning. The boys have to advertise, raise money, contact officials, arrange a location, find volunteers, get equipment, and actually pull off the cooking of over 2,000 pounds of potatoes.
Trust the students! Help them, but let them find their own questions and their own paths. Let them pursue their passions.