George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Voice

Creating a Classroom That Is Student, not Teacher, Driven

Teachers can take a step back and create lessons that put student explorations at the center of learning.

June 13, 2022
bees, flowers
Ken Orvidas / The iSpot

When we create a classroom that is less teacher-driven, our approach becomes more strategic and proactive. If we think about partially removing ourselves as a classroom focal point, that does not mean we erase ourselves from the equation. Rather, we develop the dexterity to meet a number of ever-shifting demands with students who we intentionally prepare to meet new challenges. This idea probably sounds desirable in theory but unattainable in practice, particularly given the very real and pressing needs students project on a constant basis. To further explore what it looks like to have a learning environment that partially transcends a teacher, let us first compare a static, teacher-directed classroom model to a student-centered dynamic one.

Static or Dynamic Instruction?

Imagine a high school large enough to house its own wing for math classes. Teachers of like teams have been placed in proximity to one another for easier collaboration, and on this particular day, an instructional leader has planned to observe two geometry classes back-to-back to determine how well the same subject area in different classrooms aligns. In this scenario, teachers have coordinated the content of their instruction but not the delivery method. Classes are working to create tables and then graph linear equations, and the instructional leader is eager to see how well students are understanding some of the fundamental concepts of fulfilling this learning objective.

Book cover
Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Co

In the first classroom, the teacher stands at the board with a word problem projected onto the screen. Students sit quietly in rows with their notebooks, watching as the teacher demonstrates a word problem. The teacher models the process of converting the results of the word problem into a table and then plots the numbers on the table into points on a graph. As the teacher talks, some students take notes while others simply watch. The more passive members of the class may be paying attention, or they may be off-task with any number of distractions, from texting on their phones to taking a subtle nap. More outwardly active, vocal students are raising their hands to ask questions. The teacher repeats the process of solving the equation with two more word problems before transitioning to the next phase of the class. When the teacher is finished demonstrating the process of graphing a linear equation, she projects a new word problem onto the board. “Your turn,” she says.

Students open their notebooks to a fresh page and begin working on the problem. Some of them complete the task quickly and without struggle. Some students stare into space, ignoring the task until the teacher (who is circulating) comes within proximity of their desks. A certain number of students raise their hands and ask for help, having not fully understood the demonstration at the board. One student wanders around the room, offering help to other classmates without being directed to do so. When the bell rings, students gather their notebooks as the teacher says, “We’re going to have a quiz on this tomorrow, guys. Be ready.”

The instructional leader then heads next door to the second geometry class. Once again, students are learning to graph linear equations. As the class begins, the teacher projects the same series of word problems that her colleague used in the previous lesson onto the board along with an image of a blank table and graph. Students once again have notebooks, but their desks are no longer in rows. Instead, they are arranged in small-group clusters. The teacher has placed half slips of paper marked with an empty table and graph on each set of desks, along with table tents that are marked A, B, or C. These letters correspond with the projected word problems, also marked A, B, or C. In the classroom, there are two groups for each of the letters, making a total of six groups.

The teacher instructs students to look at the word problem their group has been assigned to study. “I know that we have not learned how to do these word problems yet,” the teacher says. “In your groups, take about 10 minutes to look at the word problem. On your half sheet of paper, write down some questions about the problem. These questions could be about the situation in the problem, or they could have to do with ways to approach the task. No question is wrong. Just think of as many open-ended questions as you can together, and then we’ll come back together as a group.”

Students huddle in their groups, looking back and forth between their assigned word problem and the empty table and graph on their half sheet of paper. Slowly, as they adjust to the teacher’s request, they begin to talk. One student asks, “What is the connection between the table and the graph?” In another group, a boy frowns as he says, “I don’t know what the word ‘linear’ means.” One of his group mates encourages him, responding, “Maybe write that down?” As students talk, the teacher circulates but stays relatively quiet, listening carefully and observing the groups. As she walks, she places large pieces of chart paper on the walls all over the classroom. Each piece of chart paper is marked on top with A, B, or C. On the board at the front, a large digital countdown clock is projected along with the directions, holding both the teacher and students accountable to the stipulated work time.

When the timer goes off, the teacher addresses the class. “Let’s take a moment and record our questions on the chart paper. Then, we will discuss.” Students write the questions they just developed in groups on the pieces of paper, and the teacher speaks again. “Walk around the classroom and look at the questions,” she says. “What are some patterns that we see with the questions? What questions do you wish you had asked? Think about whatever strikes you and be prepared to talk about it.” Students move around the classroom in their groups, looking at each set of questions and talking about them as they encounter ideas that resonate.

Throughout the remainder of the class period, the teacher guides the class through looking at the questions, sifting through the various categories they fit into, and encouraging groups to begin approaching finding possible avenues to solving the problem. Before class ends, the teacher explains, “This inductive approach allows you to explore some creative ways to work through making tables and graphing linear equations before we look at some more tried-and-true processes tomorrow. Before you leave, please go back to your half sheet of paper and take a moment to put a star next to a burning question you have about solving these word problems. It can be a question you already wrote, or it can be a new question. Then, give it to me on your way out the door.”

In this tale of two classrooms, one model is predictable while the other is divergent. Aside from obvious benefits of a safe environment for risk-taking and questioning that the active student ownership of learning provides in the second model, the structure of the class also enhances its power. The students in that classroom have become accustomed to being listened to and they are comfortable taking risks that put them at the center of acquiring new skills. If the teacher were to be absent, the second group of students would be able to work collaboratively to reach learning outcomes, and they would also believe in their ability to make progress without the constant presence or prompting of an adult. The students in the first group are highly dependent learners who wait for the teacher to direct all of their activities; the students in the second group do not need to see their teacher to know what to do because they have taken responsibility for their own learning. The teacher in the second classroom believes in her students, and she knows that she can learn more about what students need by observing rather than talking.

In the first classroom, both the teacher and the students will remain static, in the same circular pattern, all year long. With each new geometry concept, the teacher will demonstrate a problem on the board and students will either complete the work satisfactorily or struggle. If the latter occurs, the less successful students will most likely be viewed as lazy or less capable, and the teacher will be frustrated at her inability to reach them as the cumulative nature of math instruction places students who are unsuccessful further and further behind. In contrast, responsiveness is an organic part of how the teacher approaches instruction in the second classroom. Student voice is clearly a high priority in both the planning and executing of lessons, and the comfort each student will feel in being heard and in making mistakes results in a classroom that embraces unpredictability and risk-taking.

A classroom free of micromanagement is not driven by a task-oriented approach. Teachers who prioritize learning outcomes and see the bigger picture of what students need to know can more effectively manage the stresses of covering a curriculum. As the class makes collaborative meaning of content, every single learner’s perspective is valued. When students see how the power of their voices contributes to the class, the learning community becomes increasingly centered on student efficacy, giving us the freedom to step aside and watch the magic of a student-owned classroom take hold.

© 2022 by Miriam Plotinsky, excerpted from the book Teach More, Hover Less: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Secondary Classroom. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.

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