Teaching Matters

Let students lead their learning by Jonny Ross-Tatam, EUSA

The case for Student-Led, Individually-Created courses

Raphy, my nephew, is 18 months old. Just under a year ago he started learning how to walk. I remember my Dad buying him a new ‘walker’ – a shiny red toy car in the shape of a trolley, designed to give little ones extra balance.  

Raphy loved it and would play with it for hours on end. He would push his little red car for a few steps, then fall sideways, backwards, sometimes doing an ungainly forward roll. We were watching, cheering and grimacing all the way, particularly after some of his more spectacular falls. But after each brief moment on the ground, Raphy would get up and try again, and get better each time.   

All young walkers go through this, but at no point did we lift him up and say:

well Raphy, it looks as if you don’t have the walking gene, maybe you should try something else.

Jonny Ross-Tatam

That might sound ridiculous, but how many times have you heard someone say exactly that about a child’s musical, artistic, or academic ability?  

Just as when a child learns to walk, we should let people try, take risks, and fail during their education, particularly at university. As the American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey (1859-1952) once said: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” 

Our education should not be just about the ‘end product’ (the exam papers, the coursework, the final mark), but the journey – the mistakes a student has made and what they have learnt along the way - where there is as much space and reward for risk-taking and self-reflection as for examination.  

That’s why the new Student-Led, Individually-Created courses (a.k.a. SLICCs) are so good. They allow students to lead their learning and design their own courses around the issues they are passionate about. So what happens when you let students off a leash like this? Do they run wild and undermine academic credibility? Do they take the easy option?  

Apparently not, from the evidence of those who took part in the first SLICCs pilot in 2015. 20 or students designed their own 10 credit courses over the summer ranging from research projects that explored degree-related topics more deeply to projects for volunteering or during summer internships.  

One student called Alec went as far as writing a 100 page (or so) e-book on ‘How To Live To 150’, a holistic overview of how to live a long and healthy life. When given the freedom to design their own learning, these students certainly didn’t take the easy option. Instead, they pushed the boundaries of how far their learning could take them and gained as much from the mistakes along the way as the presentation of the final product.  

Students leading their learning is nothing new. Just look at the 260+ student-led societies and volunteering groups. Many of these pursue causes in the local community, helping kids to learn in schools or those without a home. SLICCs let students go further and deeper into their academic programme, pursuing their passion and motivation for the subject in new ways.  

There are even a number of fully-fledged social enterprises that contribute significantly to the local community. Fresh Sight Edinburgh, a student-led consultancy for ‘socially conscious clients’ (charities, start-ups and NGOs) in Edinburgh being one example. Another, ENACTUS Edinburgh, runs projects helping homeless men and women get into a home and paid work.  

These students have taken charge of their learning and are seeking to make a difference before they graduate and get their first full-time job. It doesn’t necessarily matter that what they learn from these projects does not translate into academic credit. But there is no reason why it could not.  

These student leaders and social entrepreneurs, those who took part in the SLICCs, and my nephew Raphy share something in common. They led their learning and did so by trying, making mistakes and learning from them.  

So my call to action from all those involved in education, whether at the University of Edinburgh or anywhere else, is this: let your students off their leash and let them lead their education. You will be surprised by what they can do.  

Find out more: 

SLICCs website

The deadline for proposing new courses this year is 9 March 2016.  

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