Ben Cooper (‘16) and Heidi Dong (‘16) submitted this article as part of our annual Seniors Speak series. This series is designed to give seniors who are leaving a final opportunity to share their voice and preserve the traditions and experience of IMSA’s seniors alive long after they’ve graduated. Ben lived in 1501 and Heidi lived in 1503. They served, respectively, as Vice President and President of Student Council.
“Students have no place in curriculum development.”
“It takes an expert to create changes in the classroom.”
“If you don’t have a degree, what do you know?”
The idea that students shouldn’t mess with what goes on in the classroom is a common thread when it comes to academics. Time and again, we’re told to leave that to the experts, the people who went to school for years in order to teach us. After all, we lack their experience and their expertise, and we are here to learn from them, not the other way around.
And you know what? Maybe the naysayers are right. We would know – over the years, Student Council has tried proposal after proposal to effect changes in the classroom, and all too often, those suggestions have been turned down for a multitude of reasons. In 2015, StudCo pushed an ambitious initiative called the Student Computer Science Initiative, or SCSI. It relied on the joint efforts of a team of students, some on StudCo and some not, along with the Principal’s Office. A variety of institutions from Chicago Public Schools to North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics praised our work. Principal Lawrence was inspired to push for the creation of the course that would become CSI.
IMSA didn’t realize the changes that SCSI envisioned. The program continued to reflect many of the problems with CS education today, and the changes that SCSI suggested weren’t instituted. Instead, they hide in Google Drive and Github, waiting for their moment — a moment that may never come.
Yet despite the failures, StudCo–and students – should (and will) keep pushing on. At the root of that desire is the belief that students have a role – that we’re more than just lab rats in the learning laboratory. Here’s why:
WHY STUDENTS HAVE VALUE IN THIS
Bobby Fischer once became US Chess champion at the young age of 15 by sacrificing his queen in a game. Everything that most people (me included) knew about chess at the time (computers didn’t exist back then) said that was a terrible idea…yet he won contrary to all the knowledge that the experts had at the time.
What made Fischer special is that he had had less time (because he was young) than all the experts to memorize the conventional wisdom, so something like sacrificing the queen was an obvious solution for him. It shouldn’t be surprising that the same rules apply to the classroom. We have both been constantly humbled by the work and thought that goes into developing coherent curriculum. But we have both developed work that we’re proud of in spite of these challenges.
This comes back to our naivete. We think of and test ideas that an experienced teacher might never try. Without an obligation to get up in front of a class every day, we can observe the work of others and develop curriculum to respond to trends that we see. SCSI included silly activities like a human sorting algorithm and creating a Buzzfeed style personality quiz. Most teachers wouldn’t think of creating something like this, but our lack of experience led to them. It wasn’t perfect: the Buzzfeed quiz crashed and burned, but it led to successes like the human sorting algorithm. Even if we are lab rats, we’re pretty good ones.
Scientists would kill for lab rats that could think critically and tell them about the drugs they’re consuming. Students can do the same with the uniquely IMSA drug of learning. We spend nearly 20% of our time each week in a classroom but on a different side from teachers. However, student feedback is frequently discounted and not requested, giving zero insight into how or if IMSA students are learning. Students at IMSA’s integration into the feedback loop is critical for developing strong academics at IMSA
WHAT IS THE ADULT’S ROLE, THEN?
Yet that’s not to say that students should completely disregard the role of the adult–in fact, the contrary is true. The first reason for this is obvious. Beyond occasions such as Intersession, we’re typically using adult platforms–namely, class time–to bring changes. Without the help of the teachers who run those classes, student suggestions simply cannot be implemented. It is a privilege to have those opportunities for change, and that is a privilege that absolutely requires adult assistance.
In addition, adults provide valuable context on educational policy. Students bring new perspectives to tradition, but sometimes, tradition is tradition for a reason, for reasons that may not be evident to students on the receiving end of those traditions. Too often, it is hard for us to recognize that some things simply cannot change. Adults are able to ground new ideas in reality and to fit together innovation and practicality, thanks to their experience and training. After all, disruptive innovation doesn’t have to disrupt everything–there are tried and true practices that are a necessity in the classroom.
This leads to a third reason why the role of the adult is an important one. Their experience allows them to not only keep wild ideas in check, but it also allows them to build upon and improve new ideas. Whereas students pull ideas from their view of (and lack of experience in) the classroom, faculty pull ideas from their experience leading the classroom and from their experience in teaching. They have seen more and had more time to investigate innovative ideas in teaching.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
In the end, there are no easy solutions to creating change in the classroom. But the role of students in driving those ideas is often understated and pushed aside. We can make a difference, and with the help of the adults who will implement these initiatives, we can converge on a more perfect education. We will continue to push forward, despite all the obstacles and roadblocks and frustrations, and we will continue to search for new ways to learn. And who knows? Maybe these lab rats will find themselves building a truly innovative maze for themselves.