Collaborative Learning

3 Instructional Shifts to Facilitate Student-Led Learning

Opportunities to take initiative in the classroom encourage students to build up their critical-thinking and collaboration skills.

May 17, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

K–12 educators face alarming rates of attrition and exhaustion, with over 40 percent experiencing frequent burnout at work. This burnout stems from time constraints, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of student motivation. Traditional teacher-led instructional strategies often contribute to this cycle by failing to cater to diverse students’ needs, skills, abilities, language proficiencies, and preferences. 

My colleague Katie Novak and I have reimagined 10 time-consuming teacher-led workflows to achieve two goals: liberate teachers from one-size-fits-all lessons and foster student responsibility for learning.

Let’s explore three of these shifts: from information transfer to student discovery; from giving feedback on finished products to giving feedback as students work; and from teacher-initiated communication with families to student-led updates. 

From Information Transfer to Student Discovery

The shift from information transfer to student discovery is critical if students are going to develop the confidence and skills to engage with information and make meaning on their own. 

Too often, teachers present information for the entire class in a lecture or mini-lesson. This whole group approach presents myriad barriers for learners, whether due to a lack of vocabulary or background knowledge; or challenges with attention, hearing, processing, or pacing. 

Even though this strategy feels time-efficient because teachers can cover a large amount of information in a small amount of time, it positions students as passive consumers of information. 

Technology is great at transferring information. We can read articles, watch videos, and listen to podcasts to learn. So, the first step in freeing teachers from the front of the room is to identify concepts and skills that students can access using media. Then, decide how to actively connect students with that content to develop critical-thinking skills and construct knowledge. 

One way to do so is through reciprocal teaching. In a reciprocal teaching session, students assume a specific role—as a predictor, questioner, summarizer, or clarifier. They stop at regular intervals, whether every paragraph of a text or minute of a video or audio file, to discuss the media from the vantage point of their role. They use their role as a lens to unpack and discuss the information. This strategy encourages students to engage deeply with the media and helps them develop the confidence to learn with their peers. 

The jigsaw method is another engaging cooperative learning strategy. Groups of students work to become experts on a specific aspect of a topic by engaging with resources, media, and materials to develop a deep understanding. Then, the groups mix up so that there is an expert on each aspect of the topic in each group, and then they teach each other. This method helps students develop critical-thinking, communication, and collaboration skills. 

From Feedback on Finished Products to Feedback During the Process

The second shift ensures that feedback is focused, actionable, and timely. Too often, teachers give feedback on finished products. Students are unlikely to do anything with feedback when it’s provided at the end of a process. Instead, instructional strategies can help teachers give students feedback as they work. 

One strategy is facilitating a teacher-led, small group station—as part of a rotation—to provide feedback on works in progress. If students are working on a performance task, formal writing assignment, or project, the teacher can provide focused feedback on one or two elements so that students can act on that feedback to improve their work before it’s assessed. 

Pulling feedback loops into the classroom provides students with the support they need to do their best work and creates a higher level of student accountability. 

In addition to real-time feedback at a teacher-led station, educators can teach students how to provide each other with meaningful peer feedback. A peer feedback choice board can remove barriers by giving students meaningful choices about how they structure their feedback. For example, they might choose to celebrate the greatest strength or suggest a tiny tweak. Teachers can include sentence stems to scaffold this process, ensuring that students feel confident in their ability to respond meaningfully to their classmates. 

With classrooms full of learners, it’s critical that we help them develop the skills to be valuable resources for each other.

From Teacher-initiated communication with Families to Student-led Updates

Expecting teachers to keep all families informed of students’ progress is not sustainable. With 30 to 165 students, it isn’t possible to communicate regularly with all families. Instead, we must create structures and dedicate class time to positioning students as owners of the conversation about their progress. 

Secondary students can send their parents a biweekly high/low email, for example, copying their teacher. Such an email can comprise something that is going well and something that has been challenging. 

Younger learners can post a glow/grow update on a digital slide deck shared with families, celebrating an area of pride and an area where they need to grow. They can even insert images of offline work to show their families what they’ve been working on. 

The goal of student-led family communication is for learners to reflect on their progress, think about their work, and communicate directly with their families. This regular communication home also helps busy families stay connected to the academic work their child is doing in school. 

While individual teachers cannot change the educational system, we can change how we operate within it. By embracing these shifts, educators can create more dynamic and inclusive classrooms, easing burnout and nurturing lifelong skills in students.

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