Finding Ways for Students to Discover Their Passions

quote4In a poor part of Matamoros, Mexico, one elementary school teacher—Sergio Juarez Correa—is changing the way he approaches teaching. He is convinced that by allowing his students to direct their own education, he can in some sense level the playing field between his pupils and those across the border in Brownsville, Texas, who have access to reliable sources for electricity, laptop computers, and constant Internet access. While Correa’s students may lack the resources to which their Brownsville counterparts have access, his students have potential. They have the same potential, he says, as any other students in the world.

This ambitious Matamoros native has embraced an evolving educational theory that views knowledge not as a “commodity,” but as “something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration.” “Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another.” This approach, which is akin to the Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia Approach, tries to “creat[e] ways for [students] to discover their passion.” (I’m hoping others, like those of you at the SMU Simmons School of Education, will chime in with your expertise on educational theory.)

I have recently been wondering whether a more student-driven approach can be successful at the graduate level, and I have been contemplating employing such an approach in one of my law school courses. In my Law and Science course—about which I have blogged before—I am considering turning over much of the teaching to my students. My hope is that this will inspire my students to take greater ownership over the course material and to delve deeper into the interactions between law and science.

Before I detail how I am considering tweaking my course, let me give you a few details about the course as I currently structure it. First, I introduce my students to the field of Law and Science and provide them with some basic background on the scientific method and logical reasoning. Then, throughout the semester, I introduce my students to various topics in the field, including scientific evidence, the use of neuroscience in assessing culpability, employing epidemiological evidence to examine causation in toxic tort cases, research ethics, and how law can play a role in the development and regulation of nanotechnology and stem cell research. My course is primarily discussion-driven; I provide readings to my students and then we discuss them and related issues during class. My course is also what we at the Law School call an “edited writing course.” I require my students to write a novel research paper for my course that is of publishable quality.

I am generally happy with how my students have responded to this course structure. My students are often eager participants in our class discussions. Sometimes, though—because they are less interested in the topic of the day, are overloaded with schoolwork, or have personal matters that have taken them away from their studies—they are less engaged than I would like them to be. Many of my students produce interesting papers over the course of the semester. Sometimes I wish my students had found a greater love for their paper topics, had engaged with the legal literature more, or had worked harder to find a thesis that was novel.

To try to make my course more compelling to my students, I am considering turning over much of the course content to them. My hope is that by putting more of the course content into my students’ hands, they will become more interested and invested in the course. Let me explain more specifically what I consider doing. I think I will continue to begin the semester with introducing my students to some of the basics of Law and Science. I may also spend more time exploring the general themes of Law and Science in those first few classes. During this same time period, though, I would like to encourage my students to begin thinking about a particular area of Law and Science that they are interested in zooming in on. This would not only be the focus of their research paper but it would also be the focus of a class discussion on the topic—a class discussion that is planned and led by the students. It would probably be best for a pair of students to plan and lead the discussion. My vision is that the students who have chosen this topic of interest will conduct research on the topic, select course readings, and meet with me before teaching the class about this niche area of Law and Science. Driven by planning and leading the discussion, I hope the students will delve more deeply into their chosen topics and become truly excited about the material. I hope that their enthusiasm will be contagious and infect the entire class. I also hope that this will drive my students to begin their research on a particular Law and Science topic earlier in the semester and learn it more thoroughly so that they are able to develop more fully-formed and novel theses for their course papers.

I think there could be incredible advantages to this new approach, but I also worry that it could be somewhat risky. If my students do not become excited about their area of Law and Science, their attempt to lead the class in discussion could lack content and enthusiasm and be very boring. There is also the possibility that the rest of the students will not take the student-selected readings and student-driven discussions seriously because they view the discussion leaders as novices. Another risk is that the students perceive my experiment as an attempt to shirk my teaching responsibilities. Time may pose another challenge: my students will have to work very hard at the beginning of the semester to research and plan their course discussions.

My idea for tweaking my Law and Science course is still in a very embryonic stage, but I would love to hear your thoughts about whether this would be a useful approach to my, or any undergraduate or graduate level, course. It would also be great if readers could share good resources for the pedagogical theory animating Correa’s approach. Please share your thoughts and resources in the comments.

About Meghan Ryan

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2 Responses to Finding Ways for Students to Discover Their Passions

  1. Meghan Ryan says:

    Jill–I look forward to hearing what you opt to do as well. Not only do I think this new approach could help make my students more interested in the material we are studying, but it’s also important that they learn to effectively and persuasively communicate their ideas. In your class, it sounds like this communication aspect of the exercise–the teaching–is perhaps even more important.

  2. Jill DeTemple says:

    I’ve also been thinking about this, and will be curious to see what you decide to do. One thing I’ll be doing for a graduate class this spring will be to have every student “teach” a book we’ve just read. The idea is to have them think about content not just in terms of research, but in terms of pedagogy, as they will need to be teachers as well as researchers.

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