Students in the Driving Seat, By Emily Spicer

Date of Publication: 17 May 2019

If you could have complete control over your education, how would it look?

Use your imagination. If you could do away with fixed syllabuses, lecture halls and timetables, what would a typical day at school or university be like? If you could study anything – I mean anything – what would it be?

How much of your learning would be independent? How much would you be listening to a teacher?

This week I’ve been reading about the Agora School in the Netherlands.They believe in putting their students in the driving seat and giving them control of their education.

Intrigued? Well here’s what that means: the students at Agora work on projects of their own choosing which interest them, rather than being led by teachers at the front of the class with a dry, irrelevant curriculum.

This may sound like a recipe for anarchy, but students conduct their projects within a well-defined structure with teacher support. Each day they share their goals, progress, and challenges with the rest of the class and ask for help from their peers or teachers where needed. The classrooms are full of in-progress projects, custom-built desks designed by the students, and motivated students, deep in thought. There’s no fixed syllabus, but the students – who are 12-18 years old – still must meet certain government targets. The route to those targets is up to the students and their teachers who incorporate key concepts organically within their students’ project work.

The teachers are still essential for the learning process but, at Agora, they are guides for their students, helping them to find their way, facilitating their learning, not preaching from the front.

This hasn’t happened by magic, but by a teacher with a big vision, Rob Houben, taking a risk, and training other teachers to think and teach in the same way. From a small trial, almost shut down by the government, it now has a long waiting-list of students wanting access to this educational experience.

In a way, this is nothing new. It is well-known that when students are given ownership of their learning, the learning process is deeper and more effective. When you, as a student, get to choose your trajectory, work on a project you designed, you are more likely to thrive. But it does take boldness, as an educational institution, to go back to basics and really let your students lead.

Agora’s name comes from the Ancient Greek word for marketplace; an ‘Agora’ was a place for buying and selling, for exchanging thoughts and ideas, as well as goods.

In the last few months I’ve talked about the importance of groups of curious minds learning together, and about the power of harnessing and developing the unique ideas of individuals. I’ve been thinking about this again in the context of Agora, and student-led learning.

Here at Oxford Summer Courses we want to unleash curious minds. We want to give you the best support and the best tutors from the best universities and business contexts to help you to reach your full potential. But we want the learning journey to be led by you. We want to create a forum where ideas are exchanged, where students are empowered, where learning isn’t passive.

That’s why we adopt the Oxbridge teaching model, where students are challenged to think for themselves. That’s why our summer school in London is centred around project-based learning. That’s why we don’t stop innovating, thinking, and designing new courses (watch this space).

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So, what did you imagine at the start of this article? What would you be studying if you were in control? How would you be studying? Get in touch by email or on Twitter to share your thoughts; we want you involved!

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