George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Getting Started With Learner-Led Conferences

Unlike traditional parent-teacher meetings, learner-led conferences let students reflect on what went well, what they struggled with, and what their next steps are.

April 8, 2022
sturti / iStock

Traditional parent-teacher conferences are exhausting for teachers and tend to counteract the learner-driven environments we seek to create for students.

As I write in Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classrooms, learner-led conferences provide teachers with a tool for enabling learner-driven personalization, making students partners in the process of reflecting on their learning. That said, learner-led conferences can be intimidating. After all, it’s scary to release this responsibility onto your elementary school students. But with the right scaffolding, it can both empower them and lighten your load as it comes time to invite families into your classroom.

Getting Started With Learner-Led Conferences

Start a portfolio process from day one: Tangible artifacts for learning can scaffold learner-led conversations about progress. For students to be able to drive their learning, they must have specific artifacts they can refer to while describing their learning. But starting the process of collecting artifacts right before learner-led conferences will cause you, the teacher, a great deal of stress. Not to mention, learner-led conferences will feel disingenuous if you don’t instill a genuine culture of reflection in students from day one.

Portfolios can help with this, and they don’t have to be that complicated. To start the year, I like to create portfolios with my students, talking about the purpose behind them and even decorating them so the students feel a sense of ownership and pride over them. Then, as you both find artifacts that you want to keep, students can gradually add them to their portfolios, proactively preparing for the day when they will share artifacts with their families.

Build self-reflection into your classroom culture: In order for learner-led conferences to be productive, students must be able to talk about their learning. This means they need to be able to reflect on what has gone well, what they’ve struggled with, and what their next steps are. This is why self-reflection must be a part of your classroom culture from day one. Otherwise, the process of talking about their learning will be clunky and superficial.

You can certainly do this through written reflections in journals, but perhaps a less obtrusive and more sustainable way to get started with self-reflection is to work it into all of your lessons. I recommend spending the last five minutes of every lesson reflecting on what worked, what didn’t work, and what next steps might be in future lessons.

Consider offering some of the following language to your students to scaffold reflection:

  • I used to… Now I…
  • Today, I succeeded by…
  • Today, I struggled with…
  • Next time, I will…
  • I am still puzzled by…
  • I am wondering…

Structure preparation for conferences: Scaffolding these conferences looks different at every age. If this is the first time students have done learner-led conferences, you’ll need to interactively model how to lead their conference and give them time to practice with peers or with you.

As students are preparing, ask them to put sticky notes on artifacts they’d like to share. Put boundaries around this if you want students to showcase certain artifacts within their conferences. You might suggest that they choose only two artifacts per subject or that they need to share artifacts that show both strengths and challenges. Work collaboratively with your students to choose those boundaries.

Let them rehearse: After they’ve selected their artifacts from their journals or portfolios, give students a chance to practice with peers, as you circulate and listen in on conversations. Consider having some learners demonstrate their reflection in front of the whole class. Students can even join you in small groups to practice leading their conference. Doing so will allow students to see several examples of what this looks like, meanwhile offering opportunities for specific and actionable feedback.

Provide language to support students: Leading a conference is a language-heavy task. This means that some students will need language support. Provide students with sentence starters or thinking routines to lessen the language demands and add richness to the conversations.

You can use similar sentence starters from your class-wide reflections, providing a structure within which students can share about each artifact. If necessary, they can simply repeat the structure for each artifact. It might sound a bit robotic at first, but just remember: This is a new skill for them, so it will be a bit uncomfortable at first.

Consider using this reflection structure, but feel free to make your own:

  • This artifact shows I am succeeding with…
  • This artifact shows I am still challenged by…
  • In the future, I will…

Create conference success criteria: Create a rubric, checklist, or anchor chart with clear indicators of what a strong conference looks like or sounds like. This is a great place to put sentence starters or notes on body language.

Get ready to jump in and support: Family dynamics and student personalities create a lot of uncertainty when starting learner-led conferences. This is by no means a relinquishment of responsibility from educator to learner. Instead, be ready to share your own reflections or ask probing questions if learners need support. All students are different, so for some, simply sitting in the chair and showing off some of their artifacts will be major growth.

Trust the process: It’s possible that the first time you do this, some students will struggle with it. You may also have some unhappy parents, as they, too, have been conditioned to believe that education is something that is done to students, as opposed to a process for student empowerment and liberation. As a result, we have to trust the process, weather the storms, and be prepared to educate parents, too, about the power of learner-led conferences in building lifelong learners.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Family Engagement
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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