George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

When was the last time you asked your students what they wanted to learn? Take a minute and think about that. In the go-go world of Common Core, Smarter Balance and other assessments, when do we focus on what kids want to learn?

I'm not suggesting that the entire curriculum should be focused on what the students want to learn. Instead, what about offering students a chance to explore something that interests them and that is related to the content? Making time for students to explore questions they find interesting and relevant to the subject could inspire them to commit more time and energy to a content area that, until now, they thought had no relevance to their lives.

Exploration, Discovery and Engagement

Here are four steps to make this happen in your classroom:

  1. Ask the students what they want to learn.
  2. Give them time to explore their ideas.
  3. Guide them through their exploration.
  4. Connect it to your curriculum.

The only part of this process that might be tough is step number four. But by tuning into your students and using your imagination, this connection can be made while the students are exploring their topics. Most teachers will find that the student choice almost always matches up with most of the standards. Kids are inquisitive by nature, and many of the standards support research and exploration. So, since you asked, make use of this excellent time for looking at what kids want to learn about and seeing how you can include that into your future lesson plans.

One great way to explore what students want to learn is to institute 20 Time or Genius Hour with your students. This is when you give them one day a week or a certain time each day to explore something they are passionate about and then share their discoveries with class after a set amount of time. My students are exploring areas of interest for them and will be doing TED-style talks for the whole school at the end of the year. I have never seen kids this excited about class time, research and presentations. Giving the students the power to explore what they want has shown me a tremendous amount of engagement in their projects -- and in the rest of the curriculum, too. They realize how special their project time is, so they don't want to waste other class time.

Since I started giving the students time to explore the things that interest them, I can focus on being a "guide on the side" to help them during their learning process. It is important for students to look more deeply into learning, and the best way to do that is by letting them learn something they want. In a way, students can help you craft your class curriculum if you just ask them a simple question:

"What do you want to learn today?"

Was this useful?

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I really love one of the answers to why we study history ... the answer about how much fun it is to compare how we do things today to how we did things a long time ago. So we talked about this one for a while today and then I said what do you think people in general were like two hundred years ago?

Homer shouted ... They were Cro-Magnons!

My Georgia History class participation checklist has now been duly pontificated in a loud and authoritative voice and even written up on a white board on the back wall of the classroom where the list will stay, unchanged, and dependably available for the next 10 months. You know, when in doubt about how and when to speak the heck up eyeball the board in the back ...

1. Are you asking questions?
2. Are you answering questions?
3. Are you paying attention?
4. Are you offering up discussion items?
5. You're not asleep are you?

Enthused about the day's multitude of educational successes, I, for some masochistic unknown reason, walked down to Principal Lurlene's office and said in a happy voice that this was such noble work, teaching. It really was such noble work.

Yes, it certainly is, she said without turning around to see how happy I was and how noble I looked and felt. She's always doing something on her computer or talking on the phone or watching kids and other teachers out of the window by her desk.

I asked her why did you become a principal when teaching is so much more fun?

Lurlene finally turned around and said with an iniquitous grin ... So I can torture teachers.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

We've found a lot of value with our elementary school students simply in having them generate the questions for a unit instead of using teacher-generated questions. The kids end up finding out the same stuff if not ore, but they're way more invested because they're finding answers to their own questions.

julie williams's picture
julie williams
7th grade LA teacher from Colorado Springs, Colorado

Interesting article. We're embarking on a open ended research project right now in my LA classes. I'm hoping students will really try to find a topic of interest to them, instead of "just research something because I have to." I'm definitely a guide on the side during these processes, as I can't possibly be an expert on areas ranging from off-shore drilling to endangered seals. I wish I could find more ways to connect it to the curriculum. It connects to the standard about how students need research skills, but nothing beyond that.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

I saw Daniel Pink at Towson University a week or so ago. I thought the idea of the Genius Hour was really fantastic. He applied it to work situations and how beneficial it is when applied to the classroom. I have always liked to offer students choices in topics as well as in approaches, but I am going to try keeping it a little more open-ended one day. See what happens. Thanks!

Danielle Sigmon's picture
Danielle Sigmon
Social Media Marketing Coordinator

Great post. I've been hearing really wonderful stories from my teacher friends who are using Genius Hour. This collection of Classroom Genius Hour pages is really cool & inspiring: I'd love to see the Genius Hour concept take off even more & become part of PD models for teachers as well.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Enjoyed your article. Great to see the dialog about creating a culture of Student Voice happening more. Step 4 is critical, so much so that I'd move it up the list. From my experience, teachers who "know" their standards so much so they do not have to look them up, can effectively relate students' interests to curriculum. KWL or Need to Know at the start of a unit or project supports voice. A constructivist approach to a structured unit is another way to meet #4.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.