How Would You Use Your “Lab” Class?

Imagine a class you could call your own – free from the constraints of policy and evaluation. What would you do first?

My colleague Ruth Weber mentioned something cool the other day: What if teachers could have one period, let’s call it a “lab class,” free from the constraints of policy in order to test those hunches they’ve always had about how to best teach their content?

Here are my initial thoughts about what a lab class would look like:

1. Teaching a lab class would not be compulsory nor would it be a cop out. The spirit of the idea is to give teachers the freedom and time to innovate – not to add more to their plate or give them an easy period without responsibilities. Also, many teachers are perfectly happy, and do a fine job, working within the constraints of policy. So why make them comply with a policy intended to free them from policy?

2. A teacher electing to teach a lab class would merely have to say, “I want to” and not have to complete onerous documentation such as writing up a proposal, predicting and reporting outcomes, and the like.

3. Many teachers might choose to be systematic in their approach keeping scrupulous notes and reporting on their adventures by any means possible. Others might have a notion that an idea might work and just want to give it a “test drive.”

4. Lab class teachers shouldn’t expect special treatment regarding things like budget and other duties. Nor should their innovative ideas be a burden for other teachers. For example, by taking so many field trips that students miss a lot of class time in other subjects.

5. Freedom from policy doesn’t mean freedom from policies or laws regarding attendance, parent permission for field trips, safety, etc.

6. Failure is inherent in the notion of lab classes. Many, likely most, ideas won’t end up as the teacher imagined. Lots of others won’t work until they’ve been tried and revised and practiced. Still others will fail outright, but point the way to something new. Students will pay a price for these failed attempts. Therefore, I’d say that all of a school’s lab classes should only be offered during the same one or two periods a day. Just as students would benefit from experiments that work spectacularly, they would also pay the price, academically, for failures. So they shouldn’t face the academic risk of having a schedule full of lab classes.

7. Students (and parents) should be able to opt out of a lab class because students choosing to take the lab class would likely still need to take any associated district or state assessments and prefer not to be tested on material they studied using unproved methods.

8.  A lab class teacher could not have student performance of the lab class used as part of his or her evaluation without prior consent. But a lab class teacher should be able to answer, “Hey, what are you doing in that lab class and how’s it working out?” whenever anybody asks it.

9. A lab class would not be an elective in which the teacher gets to teach whatever content they want – an eighth grade math lab class would learn eighth grade math. (An exception, of course, would when the teacher is an elective teacher.)

10. Points 1 – 9 all have counterpoints.

I asked Ruth how she would use her lab class.  And know that she is no stranger to classroom innovation. Students in her Spanish class spend little time with verb conjugation work sheets. Instead they develop a tourist flyer, in Spanish, about a country they have researched. They present the country to the class in an oral presentation. Many students are motivated to learn a few phrases in the language of their country, too.

Ruth would experiment a lot with ideas related to student engagement, but mostly explore Sumatra Mitra’s concepts about student-driven education.

I hope she gets her lab class soon.

Want to hear about another good idea? Check out Guest Teaching as Civic Duty.

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