And as a way to underscore the confidence she places on the students to direct their own learning, the children are free to select their work partners. “This was the most scary for me,” Riley said. To prevent children from picking their best friends or ostracizing anyone, she guided the children in creating norms on how to select a work partner. The model they devised was simple: work together, not against each other; compromise; split tasks fairly. Again, Riley encourages the kids to think of their partner as someone with whom they could work successfully—not just a friend, or someone with identical skills, but a fellow student who would contribute to the project.
TOO MUCH FREEDOM?
Does such freedom of choice deter young students from pursuing unfamiliar subjects? Will inviting children to present their work in the way that best suits their interests discourage them from taking risks? Riley says no. “I encourage them to try something different,” she said. She is clear about letting students know that she doesn’t want the same old thing, just repurposed, every time they turn in an assignment. “I tell them, ’show me that you’re challenging yourself to try something new.’”
And to counterbalance the self-directed nature of students’ learning, Riley also emphasizes the need for community within the classroom. All students are responsible for clean up and each week Riley picks one empowering quote from the many that students have submitted for consideration. Riley posts the quote at the front of the class and students then strive to live by the saying—for example, “Be yourself, because everybody else is already taken.” At the end of the week, students decide who best embodied the quote, and that student then gets to “keep” the quote.
Riley’s students prefer the new classroom environment, she said. “They enjoy what’s going on in the class so much more,” she said. Academically, the kids dive deeper when they determine where they’re headed. When Riley introduced programmable robots to the students, for example, each work group sought to develop a different robot capability. And while some groups followed Riley’s instructions on programming, others turned to online tutorials to learn more. “They’re embracing it and running with it,” Riley said about her spirited classroom.