Promoting student accountability by teaching less

Categories: Blog, Education

By Scott Cunningham
Davidson College Education Scholar

“I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?
“I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.”

Digital & Medial Literacy Camp students working hard on a project.
Digital & Medial Literacy Camp students working hard on a project.

These lyrics come from one of the six songs my students and I listened to during my specials course at Studio 345’s second session of Digital and Media Literacy Camp. Specials are hour-long, student-selected classes that range from movie making to cup stacking. Mine focused on Writing Rap Lyrics. In eight days, the group was expected to create a rap song, cover art, and a brief analysis of what their work meant.

We began each class listening to snippets of songs by artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Eminem.

After listening to the song, I led a discussion on how the lyrics related to the theme of identity. On the last day of class, however, I decided to conduct a small experiment. I wanted to see if the kids actually learned something. I was curious if anything we worked on the last few days had stuck.

“Alright we’ll listen to this song, and then you all can decide what you want to do.”

To my surprise, the kids launched into a discussion about what they had just listened to, asking each other what parts they underlined, how it related to the song, and what it all meant. One seventh grader in particular, Shahim, continued raising his hand to contribute, despite being silent for the majority of the discussions. The experience enlightened me on how teaching less might actually help kids learn a little bit more.

After each discussion, I very intentionally framed the purpose of the project and how I hoped everyone would draw from the discussions while making their music. After those introductions, however, I stepped back and told them they were responsible for the use of their time. I decided I would not touch any of the content, even if the students found themselves in a dead end.

At every other point, however, I was amazed by how much the kids were able to accomplish on their own as I watched. Once I set the parameters for the group, they were free to explore all avenues within that context, make their own discoveries, and facilitate their own learning.

Educators are taking this approach towards student accountability more often than ever before. Monument Mountain Regional High School used a student-driven method of teaching by giving students the freedom to select their own projects, course content, and timelines. The program naturally encountered difficulties, but also found success that went far beyond what some thought possible.

“There were so many moments where you could see students being inspired[….]And they learned that with that much control comes a great deal of responsibility, to manage time and be accountable,” says Mike Powell, the main advisor of the pilot project.

My decision to let my students manage their own work felt undeniably risky. I could not know if they would meet their deadline, or if our class would be left without anything to present on the last day of camp. To my surprise, however, they turned in all of the required materials by the final day. In my opinion, that experience of pure accountability will benefit them immensely in the future.

“The idea was that it was for students who could manage their time well, were looking for something more than the traditional program, and had a passion for learning,” said Powell.

I think many students have that passion for learning, so long as we allow them to pursue their passions while still guiding them gently along.

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