I've been thinking lately about a sharply articulated statement from a student of mine. In reflecting on her deep hope for the formational learning project that we launched in my 11th grade US History class, she wrote, "I want to learn more about the past through the lens of someone who lived through it, instead of a PowerPoint."
Now, as the guy who makes the PowerPoints for US History class, I took zero offense to this. In fact, I'm in enthusiastic agreement with her. When I shared her reflection with the rest of my students I saw a lot of smiles and nodding heads. What they were responding to was their own desire for a learning experience that reached their imagination and affective core. If we aspire to design learning that has formational power, we must attempt to address students at this level in addition to seeking cognitive understanding.
The project that prompted this remark from my student is the result of a redesign prompted by the Teaching for Transformation framework. I took a bit of work that had long lived in my curriculum - a researched thesis paper - and tweaked it in a way that I hoped would access the heart and imagination of my students a bit. Students are now asked to conduct an interview with someone of an older generation that they have a relationship with (frequently a grandparent or parent) and listen to them share stories from their life. Students then write a paper telling some portion of their interview subject’s story and contextualize it within a broader theme or chapter in American life. Thus, while there are still significant research and writing components, these are situated around a real-life person, and energy is directed toward the relational aim of honoring and blessing someone that they care about.
My thinking in designing a history project this way is influenced by the ideas of educational philosopher Kieran Egan:
“Genuine education inescapably involves emotional engagement… When we hear ourselves saying, ‘You’ve just got to learn it,’ requiring that students work at tasks even when they are unable to see the point, then we should be alerted to the fact that such learning has lost hold on students’ imaginations. We cannot reasonably expect students to be pleasurably engaged all the time, and hard work is necessary for any worthwhile educational achievement, but if we accept that imaginative engagement is a necessary condition of educationally valuable learning, then we will want to find ways of ensuring a place for emotion, for engaging with students’ hopes, fears, and intentions, and for evaluating qualities of experience and richness of meaning.”1
It's been my experience that students respond to the "real work, real people, real needs" of formational learning design with a different sort of energy and curiosity than we (and they) might be used to. In the end, when we can take this bubbling student curiosity and work legitimate content and skills acquisition into the work, then the possibilities for Christian formational learning really begin to pop.
While we’re still going to need to use PowerPoint in class some days to equip students with the essential background knowledge that they’ll need, my student’s point is well taken. Without some imaginative engagement in our learning, we’re all just grinding out grades. However, when our students’ emotions are engaged, we can hope to see student reflections at the end of a project like this gem I recently received:
“I loved my experience with this essay. Papers normally make me nervous, but as I began this process, I realized it was unlike any other essay I have written. I felt this way because it had a personal, intimate connection to me while also coinciding with history. Learning about my mom's story during the recession made me realize how hard of a worker she is and what is truly valuable to her… As a result, I learned a lot about my mom's business, and now I feel like I can have easier conversations with her about it. From researching the recession, I was able to look at the patterns of the market, and I feel that if it happens again, I will be equipped to know that it will not last forever. Thank you for allowing us to do this sort of project!”2
Imagination in Teaching & Learning: The Middle School Years, by Egan, Kieran, Routledge, 1992. P. 51-52
J-, E. (2021, March 14). US History Formational Research Paper Final Reflections. Chaska, MN; Southwest Christian High School.