How to allow students to run class

Daniel Morse
4 min readMar 29, 2022

The 2000s rom-com movie Accepted taught an important lesson. The film tells the story of a high schooler who, after getting rejected from all colleges, decides to create his own fake college dubbed the “South Harmon Institute of Technology” (SHIT). He situates his campus in a decrepit, abandoned high school. A band of misfits join him. They hold actual classes.

The structure of their courses was brilliant. They had an “unconference” where students could propose classes they wanted to learn and teach. All the students crowded around a white board, marking their names next to topics they wanted to learn. From there, students self-organized into classes. Their eyes glittered with excitement — for the first time, their education was driven by their own skills and interests.

It turns out that this kind of student interest-driven learning shows better results.

The “unconference” class topic idea board from the movie Accepted

Most educators assume this “wild-west” style of schooling is impossible. They worry essential material won’t be covered. They don’t trust the student to be productive … the whole class could devolve. Or would it?

“Unconferences” are possible — and desired!

You just need the right structure.

There are two structures, each falling on a spectrum of tight to required course learning objectives or loose.

Structures for exploratory courses

Tight to Learning Objectives — Jigsaw

“Jigsaw” activities allows students to explore a topic within the confines of the course learning objectives. The instructor starts by laying out ~4 topics for students to learn.

For instance, in a computer science class on “How the Internet Works”, the student may pick the topics of TCP/IP, Networks, Servers, and X. The students get to choose which of the four topics they most want to learn. Then, all the students interested a particular topic study it together (e.g. all TCP/IP enthusiasts are grouped together).

Then, you reconfigure the groups so that there is one student representative of each different topic within a group. Each representative teaches their newly learned materials to their peers. In a sense, the Jigsaw allows students to teach each other the material.

Many students feel more motivated by this structure because their learning is dependent on one another.

Source: Learning Currents

Still, we can create more unbounded opportunities for learning driven by student interest…

Loose to Learning Objectives — Exploratory courses

Exploratory sessions anchor student learning on their own interests.

Most older adults are shocked to learn that 64% of Gen Zers and millennials feel better understood by specialized online communities than by their family and real-world friends. The truth is, the culture gap between most educators and Gen Z is huge and only growing.

This poses a challenge to older educators who want to relate to their students. But it also creates an opportunity.

If students pick the sub topics they want to learn, they are more likely to be appealing to their peers. Some examples of class content tied to Gen Z interests might be “The psychology of Fortnite and how it hooks players” or “Color theory applied to viral TikToks”. Your job as an instructor is to provide enough structure to keep learning focused but enough freedom for topics to be genuinely exciting.

Here’s how …

1. Before the exploratory class — students tie their genuine interests to class material. I give students a worksheet (created by Character Lab) to help them think about what topic they want to explore. They list out their interests (inside and outside of school) and finds creative connections of those interests to class concepts.

Source: Character Labs

This reflection sparks their curiosity. Students can now think up a personal interest related to the class material they want to explore and eventually teach to their peers.

Students are also always encouraged to go off the rails and propose their own format and topics … I have them check in with me for approval.

3. Before exploratory class — students pick topics they want to teach to their peers: we create a schedule of student presentations.

4. Day of exploratory class: We all teach and learn!

This format unfailingly is one of the most energized classes all year!