"I like to think of this class as a shining beacon of hope. I may not always have gotten the highest grades, but I was real. I was not a robot and I did not compromise my beliefs or my integrity. I learned what I wanted to learn, and for the first time ever, I can honestly say that I wish the curriculum could continue. I didn’t just learn about physics. I learned to appreciate physics, which is far more valuable than any amount of facts memorized only to be regurgitated on any of countless standardized evaluations." —Ben L., student
The Thrill of Self-governance
Today, we’re going outside. It’s a spectacular fall day; there is the smell of newly mown grass, and the sky is a beautiful deep blue with puffy clouds. The students are excited to be out of the building. They are much more energized than they were in the classroom. There are more smiles.
My goals for the day are to have everyone get to know each other better, participate in creative problem solving, and get a taste of spontaneous self-governance. Not to mention, we will have some fun.
The whole class is strewn along a sidewalk in front of the school. I start with an open-ended task.
“I want you to organize yourselves chronologically based on your birthday. January first is over there” -- I point to their left -- “and December thirty-first is over there. Oh, and you can’t say anything while you’re doing it. Okay, go.”
At first everyone mills around aimlessly, looking confused, but several students quickly invent a sign language method of communicating month and day. Within seconds everyone is doing it, and they are having purposeful interactions sorting themselves into position. In two minutes, they have formed a line.
“Let’s see how you did. Starting over here, with January, call out your birthday nice and loud so everyone can hear it.” They do, and find that they’ve done the exercise successfully. A cheer erupts as they congratulate themselves.
I walk to the center of the line and tell the left hand group to form a circle on the lawn in one place and the right hand half to form a circle in another. I pick one person from each group to start the game by handing him a tennis ball that I’ve brought.
“In this game, I want you to pass the ball to someone you know, and call out his or her name while it’s in the air. The ball has to go to every person in the circle before coming back to the starter, and each person can only touch the ball once. Go.”
After they’ve done that successfully a few times, I tell them that they have to add a second ball, then a third and a fourth. “How many balls can you keep in the air without collisions? How will you deal with it if someone drops the ball?” They start talking to each other, coming up with ideas about using different heights, whether to throw at the same time or randomly, how to signal that someone’s dropped the ball without a train wreck. There are lots of disasters. A student who drops the ball turns to pick it up and is pelted by the next three that she was supposed to catch. Gradually, each team comes up with strategies that are more successful.
“Now, let’s change the rules. Your job is to pass just one ball through the same pattern, so that every person touches the ball exactly once and it gets back to the starter person as quickly as possible. You no longer have to say names. The only other conditions are that only one person at a time has the ball at any given moment, and the ball can’t touch anything but the hands of your teammates. I have a stopwatch, and we’ll see which of these two groups can do this task the fastest.”
There is a flurry of activity and chatter, with lots of people coming up with ideas. Both groups start experimenting. The make the circle much smaller. They try throwing and catching with both hands. I time one group at 5 seconds and tell them they can do it much faster. Another round of excited chatter, more brainstorming. Finally, one person asks, “Do we have to stand in the same positions we were in before?” No, I tell them, the rules just say that the ball has to touch each person in the same pattern as before.
Suddenly, both groups are reorganizing themselves into a new pattern so that the ball moves in a circle instead of bouncing across and back. It’s down to 3.8 seconds. I tell them again that it can be much faster still. Now they are in full creative mode. “Do we have to be in a circle?” one students asks. “No,” I say, “that’s not one of the rules.” One team forms a straight row and creates a ramp with their hands touching each other. The starter drops the ball into the 2nd person’s waiting hands, then runs to the end of the ramp to catch it. The ball repeatedly hops the “track.” there are loud groans of frustration, they readjust. They’re down to 2.5 seconds.
It can be faster, I tell them.
They experiment on how to hold their hands to optimize the smooth rolling of the ball. One group gets it down to 2.0 seconds. I tell them it can be still faster. The other group gets even more energized. They decide the ball should only touch one hand from each person, which means they start crushing closer to each other. Someone says, Let’s make a circular ramp. They are now forming a complex mess of limbs, with some people organizing themselves into an inner circle, some kneeling, some standing, and others forming an outer circle with their hands poking into the spiral in the right order. The starter lets loose, then drops to his knees to get his hand at the bottom of the circle. They’re down to 1.1 seconds. The other team screams in frustration. They then come up with a totally vertical chute, with each person forming part of the side with one hand. They form an impossibly convoluted pile of bodies. I time them at 0.7 seconds and call them the winners. Pandemonium ensues.
When the dust settles, I tell them we’re going back up to our room to talk about the activity.
Back in the classroom, it’s time to draw a few lessons from the activity. They’re sitting in random groups around the lab tables. There’s still a buzz of excitement from what they just did.
“First of all, well done everyone. Did any of you actually believe you could get your time down to under a second?”
An energetic babble of voices is saying no.
“Think back and see if you can explain to each other just how you did it. Here are a few questions to think about:
“Where did the new ideas come from? Who decided what your team was going to do next? how many leaders did your team have? And how did you feel by the end of the activity? What was it that made you feel that way?”
Five minutes of animated conversation later, I ask them the same questions.
“Let’s start with how it felt. Clearly, everyone was pretty buzzed - why?”
“Just being able to figure it out,” Carl says. “We actually solved the problem ourselves. That was the best.”
Alex is almost bouncing in his chair. “I loved not knowing what was going to happen next - it was crazy. I felt like we could try anything.”
“Yeah, it was great for me watching the two teams and seeing how creative you were. It was a non-stop flow of ideas.”
“That was the best part for me,” Jasmine says. “So many great ideas. It’s like we were leap-frogging over each other’s ideas.”
“You guys know the word ‘brainstorming’, right? That’s what you were doing, for sure. What else felt good?”
“Both teams were really motivated by the competition,” Carol says, “but it was friendly competition, and it made us work together even more.”
“So let me ask you this: Did you feel like this was your activity or mine?”
“Definitely ours,” a chorus answers.
“Even though I told you what the goals were and what the rules of the game were?”
“You had to do that so that we would know how to play the game,” George says. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t have even been a game.”
“Right. So I had an important role to play in setting up what needed to happen, but not how to do it.
“So who did make the decisions? How did you solve the problems? Did someone become the leader, telling you what to do?”
“No, and that was the best part for me,” George says. The ideas came from everywhere. It was like we were thinking.”
“Yeah, I could see that,” I say. “That’s called self-governance. Knowing what the group should do sort of bubbles up.
“Now imagine how different this activity would have been if I had been telling you what to try next, how to solve each problem. Would that have been as good?”
They respond with a loud chorus of noes.
“And there’s no way you would have the sense of accomplishment that you feel right now, right? In fact, I’m guessing it wouldn’t feel like it was your activity - you would have been doing mine.”
“So here’s the punchline: as often as possible, we’re going to use this as a model for how you will learn physics. It won’t always be as crazy as what just happened, and we’ll be in this room, not outdoors, but I want you to find ways to solve your own problems
“As the teacher, I have a big role to play, of course. I know the “game” of physics, and I know something about the rules of learning it. But the actual work of learning, all the creativity in figuring it out, that should be your activity, not mine. I will put up the scaffolding around you, but you are going to actually build the thing. So our class will be a blend of teacher-directed and student-directed activities; there is an important role for each. Finding the balance will be part of what we do together.
“And that means we are going to have to redefine my role as a teacher and yours as students. I believe your going to find it an interesting experiment in what school can be.”
We are off to a good start.