A little slice of democratic education

In the past few weeks, one of my courses has embarked on a wee experiment in democratic education. What I call “Guided Group Learning” is a structure for students to pursue their own interests on a topic in a group setting

Some important notes:

This exercise is at the end of a year-long course called Portland! It is part of a group of year-long courses at Portland State University (called Freshman Inquiry, or FRINQ) that students choose from. In our course, we did a quarter of Portland History, another quarter of geography (physical, political, cultural), and this quarter was divided between economic geography, the elections that we just had (so, basically a short course in civics) and this section: Guided Group Learning.

In order to get to these two weeks of student-led education, students had to write a proposal (see below for the outline.) This was hands down the worst part of the whole process. Students found the assignment confusing, I often found their efforts to be thin, and we were all pretty frustrated for a while.

I also think it is in these moments of frustration when we actually learn the most: they had to learn to consider what the instructions mean beyond what is on the page, and to express their ideas more clearly. And I have to learn – as a teacher – to be more compassionate, more patient, more specific, and to admit to my own shortcomings in writing the assignment. I also have to express to them how to improve on their work without anger or turning them off to the main point of the project, which is to learn on their own terms.

So the groups chose, based on some loose parameters: they chose to study local sports teams, food carts, transportation, local markets. It has been really exciting to see them dive into the work.

And although there is a lot of planning at the top, and presenting at the end, I think the best part is the time in the classroom during these weeks of ‘go.’ Here are a few reasons why.

First – not everyone is here all the time. Some students are off on field trips or doing interviews with scholars and community members each day, so there are only four or five groups in the classroom on any given day. This makes it possible for me to give attention to anyone who wants it in a meaningful way.

Second – students sit and they work together. They work in the ways that are comfortable for them, ways that I would not necessarily choose or approve of, but ways that work, whatever that may mean. Headphones in ears, perhaps, which I would never allow. Or reading an article in class together instead of reading it before, and coming in ready to discuss. Might some of those ways just be bad habits? Sure. But this gives me the chance – for a short while, and in a controlled setting – to watch them work as they do on their own, and to learn a bit about their process.

Third – and this may seem both obvious and a bit pat – the learning is theirs. They have a list of tasks they must complete, and I am there to follow their lead, to answer questions and to get out of the way.

This, I find, is also the hardest part in all dimensions: the getting out of the way. Letting students do things their way, letting them come up with answers and ideas that are less sophisticated than what I might impart, but which I know from experience have more staying power. Letting go in this way is incredibly hard. Looking forward to the end result.


Guided Group Learning proposal assignment

  1. Choose a site or topic. This should include a particular place or places. “Portland Parks” is not a meaningful topic, but a particular park or comparison between two parks is meaningful. Why did you choose it? (150 words, individual).Choose at least two news articles your group will analyze, and explain why it is important. How do you know the source is credible? Is it current or historical? Why is the time frame useful? (100 words, individual).
  2. Choose at least one scholarly article your group will read together, and explain why it is important. (If you’re stuck, begin with Google scholar or talk to a librarian.) (150 words, individual).
  3. Choose a scholar or community member to interview; make a plan for getting in touch with that person and draft an email. (300 words, group).
  4. Choose at least one site for a field assignment, and write up the field assignment in the style of the assignments we have been doing all year. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (100 – 500 words, group)
  5. Length and parameters for your final assignment (paper, video, podcast) and presentation. How should I assess (grade) its quality? (400 – 500 words, group).
  6. How will all of the pieces of this assignment go together? (300 – 500 words, individual).