Back to school
Image by Avolore via Flickr

I’ve decided that I’m going to begin this school year with my students by letting them dream. I have several reasons for doing it, not the least of which is that it gives me a chance to get to know a little more about each of them and what makes them tick. Mostly, though, it will be a reminder for me of who I’m doing this for and what my focus needs to be. It’s a way of staying centered on the students—instead of being centered on the curriculum or my interests or the district assessment plan.

There are many ways I could go about finding out my students’ dreams: I could ask them about their goals in life, for example, or places they’d like to visit. An interesting idea occurred to me, though, when I started thinking about my district’s plan to build several new elementary schools.

What if, I thought, the planning process were to begin with the dreams of students? What if we asked students to imagine the perfect school? No preconceptions, no “can’ts” or “won’ts,” just the unhindered imaginations of the people for whom the building is being designed?

So that’s just what I’m going to ask my students next week when they return to school:

For our first discussion topic, I want you to imagine that we are going to try and create the perfect school. Think about some of these questions to help you get started. You don’t need to answer them all—these are just to get your brain going:

  • What kinds of things would we learn?
  • What would the schedule be like?
  • What would classrooms look like?
  • What other spaces and rooms would you include?
  • How would the classes work?
  • Would students work alone or in groups? Sometimes, or all the time?
  • What kinds of projects and homework would we have?
  • What didn’t I think of that you want to ask?
I will find out a lot about my students this way, much of which I will be able to use when I’m designing learning experiences for them. It occurs to me, though, that we might gain a lot of valuable insights if we started every instructional design process this way, whether it’s constructing a new multi-million dollar school or planning next week’s math unit. I’m not suggesting that we respond to every whim and fantasy they come up with, but just to take them all seriously. Just because a seven-year-old asks for pony rides during recess or a fourteen-year-old wants video games in the cafeteria doesn’t mean there isn’t some legitimate need that we need to consider when planning the space. If most of the students say there should be less (or even no) homework, we shouldn’t simply dismiss it as adolescent whining, we should look hard at our policies and the rationale behind them.

I know that I will take every response I get from students in my survey seriously, and may even consider sending them on to the committee that is planning the new schools.

What if we began everything we did in education with the dreams of the students? It won’t solve all of our problems, but we might learn something that would help. Why not start your year by finding out what your students want? Share what you learn in the comments.

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