Promoting Student-Led Learning in Elementary School
Giving students chances to make classroom decisions and manage discussions guides them to take agency in their learning.
On the first day of school this year, I gave my class directions for our activity and told them, “I need five groups.” They looked at me for a few seconds; and then, when they realized I wasn’t going to say anything else, a few students started counting how many people were in class and moving them into groups. At that moment, my students could tell that I wasn’t always going to tell them exactly what to do and that they could make decisions on their own.
When I first started teaching, I would stick to my lesson plan no matter what. I began to wonder if there were ways that I unknowingly prevented them from achieving their potential or if I let any of my own anxieties prevent them from taking academic risks. I now prioritize creating a space in which students can be who they are and explore what it means to be human. My fifth graders surprise me every day and are constantly displaying their curiosity and creativity in ways I could never expect.
Promoting Student Discourse and Shared Learning Experiences
Socratic seminars: Socratic seminars were, by far, my students’ favorite activity this year. As a student, I didn’t participate in a Socratic seminar until high school, so at first, I was concerned that my students were not ready yet and would awkwardly stare at each other until I took over. I quickly realized how much they were capable of when I didn’t try to rescue them and just sat quietly on the side.
A few days before our seminar, I gave students an open-ended question: How do humans affect the environment? I provided them time to conduct research in groups. We used a triad model, where each group had a pilot and two copilots. On the day of the seminar, I repeated the question, chose a volunteer to start us off, and took notes as I followed the discussion. Throughout, the pilots could confer with their copilots.
During every seminar, I sat in awe as my students responded to each other with well-researched points. Using the triad model, even my students who didn’t like speaking in front of others were not held back from participating because their pilot could help them. Because I got out of my students’ way, their discussion and learning was so much deeper.
Question Formulation Technique: I start new science units with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to get my students talking and brainstorming about our new topic. Students generate as many questions as they can about our topic without trying to stop and answer any of the questions. When finished, we sort the questions into groups by putting related questions together.
These questions take us naturally beyond the standards and curriculum, and students often come up with questions I don’t have the answers to. This used to make me very uncomfortable because I thought that as the teacher, I should have all the answers. Now, I realize that by letting students take the lead with these questions and investigate the answers, they are actively engaged in their learning (and I get to learn new things, too!).
Practicing New Ways of Learning
New experiences: Recently, I borrowed a set of Sphero robots to practice coding with my class. Even though I had very little experience using these robots and the accompanying app, I didn’t want to let my inexperience and nervousness keep my students from this learning opportunity. I used tape to create a few paths on the floor for the robots to follow. Together, we practiced moving our robots with the coding app until finally a team was able to successfully code their robot down a zigzag path.
As soon as the Sphero reached the end, the whole class erupted in cheers. Every time another team got their Sphero through the path, it felt like a win for everyone. The energy was contagious. Learning experiences like this are more than productive struggle. They help students develop confidence in their ability to take risks and solve problems.
The power of decision-making: I want to help students identify their needs and develop their strengths so they know how to use them in any situation. I offer choices whenever possible. My students practice decision-making in many ways, such as choosing how to learn about a new topic, creating projects, and presenting new learning.
Using these choices alongside the Purpose, Depth, and Delivery framework has led to more engagement, helped students feel empowered to advocate for their needs, and provided increased confidence in their decision-making. Students can choose to learn new information through articles or videos and can express their new learning in different ways. I want my students to identify aspects of themselves as learners that they may not have considered before, so that when they are pursuing new learning, they have a place to start.
For example, I usually do not enjoy watching videos to learn new information. I would much rather read a book or an article. However, with certain topics, I need visuals. I recently started learning how to play ukulele, and for that, I definitely wanted videos! I shared this with my students when we were learning about sound. We read about how sound travels, and then we watched my ukulele strings vibrate as I played different chords. Not only did we discuss sound waves, but we talked about how different experiences help us learn.
Letting students take the lead whenever possible is more of a mindset shift than anything else. When we structure every minute of our day and maintain our traditional, factory-like model, we deny the natural learning needs of our students and hold them back from what they’re capable of. Learning comes naturally to us as humans and often happens without our even realizing it.
When students leave school, they are expected to be independent thinkers and decision makers, but many have never had the opportunity to make decisions about what they need. If we do not give students the opportunity to make decisions in a safe, school environment, they will have no practice when they enter the real world and have to make decisions on their own.