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Creating Great Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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The more I think about how we have been looking at education, I think we have it all wrong. Up until now, all of our emphasis has been on creating great teachers when we should have been emphasizing creating great students.

For years we have been trying to create the super teacher: a mythical being that can reach every student, comply with all state and federal mandates, attend to all the extra duties and committee meetings, and still enthusiastically smile at the end of the day. This awesome teacher employs perfected strategies, powerful instructional planning skills, and superb classroom management all with indefatigable energy.

We all try to be this teacher and fall uncomfortably short in the attempt. Even worse, hardly a dent has been made in turning around low reading scores, poor math understanding, and the general apathy for learning. Even though we see this trend and are trying our best to ameliorate the symptoms, we really have not addressed the real problem -- the quality of our students.

We know (and have known for a long time) that the best all-around way to get students to learn is student-directed learning (also known as student-centered), but after all this time, we are still trying to get the teachers to quit doing so much direct instruction and engage more students with inquiry, project-based learning, and experiential learning.

Tools to Consider

By focusing on creating great students and placing our efforts on improving the kind of students we want to have, we will break through the current ceiling of minimalist learning and be able to finally do what we do best -- help students learn. The question you are probably asking is, "How do we improve our students?"

To start off, changing the type of student we have now is not a quick fix and may take years for the new type of kindergarten students to make their way through the system. Nevertheless, we can prepare our current students to take the responsibility for learning right now. Here are five things to get immediate changes started:

  1. We can set weekly learning goals with each individual student and teach them how to set their own daily goals for learning. (Even first graders can and should do this.)
  2. We can utilize rubrics to set high performance standards and help students to evaluate their own performance.
  3. We can give students opportunities to create high quality products that are relevant to what they need to learn.
  4. We can evaluate learning in formative ways (i.e. let the students take the test over).
  5. We can provide students with the appropriate and effective learning skills -- learning brain-based strategies, processes, heuristics, etc.

Lack of motivation on the part of the student is probably the first thing that should be addressed. First of all, students need to want to learn. For most kids, that is not a problem while they are in kindergarten to third or fourth grade. As the grade level increases, however, fewer and fewer students want to play the game of learning the way it is played now (how is it played now? That is a conversation for another time). We have change the system so that students don't stop learning when they get to fourth grade.

Using Backwards Planning

Perhaps another way to look at changing the system is to do some backward design. For example, I have to ask myself what would I as a teacher do differently if I had a classroom full of eager and capable students? Here is my brainstorm. As a teacher, I would:

  • Spend less time drilling and droning and more time with hands-on. It is hard to trust students when they disregard and ignore simple instructions
  • Engage them at higher levels and make sure they had something worthy to create with their new knowledge and skills. Authentic products help students to see the connection between what they are learning and how to use their newly acquired knowledge
  • Find out how I could help each student. This means, ask them. At first, some students will not know how to answer this question because the do not have learning goals. Keep asking. Help them set those goals high and help them reach them daily
  • Provide the students with just the right curriculum and technology tools This allows them to learn independently from us. The most frustrating thing for students is not having what they need to research questions, to explore, to discover, and to create
  • Help students learn the best ways to learn. We know so much about the brain, and learning, but we do not share this with students. Students should know how their own brain works and the best ways for acquiring knowledge and skills
  • Have fun with the learning. A good rule of thumb here is if you are not having fun, the students probably are not either
  • Find out what the students want to explore. Then, design learning activities around those in order to explore with them. I would create practice learning activities that are energizing and interesting that reflect authentic situations that students will encounter
  • Extend the learning into the home. This does not mean just "homework." It also means that students teach family members what they know, and engage them in learning too
  • Publish my student's discoveries and creations. Publish them to more than parents and school board members. When things are widely published, students are motivated to do a good job because they know others will be looking at it
  • Create a learning environment that makes it easy for students to learn. Immersion works for all subjects not just in world language classes

Interesting enough, if we start using strategies like those above, students will begin to behave accordingly. With such a list we can start creating the new and improved students immediately. Realizing that no one is naturally a great student, we have to make the focus more all about learning and not teaching, giving them the right motivation, skills, and tools.

What might you do differently if you had a classroom full of all eager and highly-capable students? Please share in the comment section below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ryan Gaskill's picture
Ryan Gaskill
Educator,Speaker, Coaching Students and Teachers towards Passion and Goals

Great points Ben. This is exactly what I have been working on. I have been asking students what they expect to get out of their time in school. Encouraging them to have an expectation for a return on their investment of time and energy in school. I most recently asked them about their goal for 2014, how I can help them, and what they want to learn in 2014. Thanks for the post.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Take the learning home. Families and teachers joined together-nothing more dynamic than that. Maybe you could give further input on how to create that relationship with student's families in a future article.

Dorothy Petrie's picture
Dorothy Petrie
Chairperson ~ PACE (Parents Advocating Challenge in Education)

I like the consistent emphasis on "authenticity": through connections, in situations they may encounter, in opportunities for exploration, goal-setting, and individualized learning. This level of engagement requires, and students most definitely merit,
teachers that are free to write and plan their own curriculum, to created individualized, student-directed goals, to build upon and nurture for growth student's strengths, and to assess growth and achievement in a meaningful way. There is no room for a cookie-cutter approach if true engagement and student-centered learning is the desired outcome.

Weifang Wang's picture
Weifang Wang
Ninth-Twelfth grade Chinese teacher from Highland Park, Illinois

Inspiring article.
Thank you! I am inspired and excited and would love to do what you advised. Is it possible for you to give me an example of a mini unit on how to do it?

Shaza Tehseen's picture
Shaza Tehseen
Montessori Teacher primary years, Follows global educational movements

I hope your helpful points can encourage teachers to be a part of the process which creates great students. Your first few paragraphs highlight the huge current issue of disconnection of the teachers towards their students. Why? Teachers are constantly trying to put up with so many fronts that the most important one; to know each student's talent and personality , becomes unintentionally ignored.
Most of your wonderful suggestions can only come to play effectively if the school administration & the official culture allow teachers to "observe" their students more often in different scenarios. (your points: FIND OUT HOW I CAN HELP EACH STUDENT& FIND OUT WHAT THE STUDENTS WANT TO EXPLORE). As Piaget says: "What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see."
These observations can be recorded in the form of photos, shorthand, digital voice recorder or the classic and simple jot-down-my-notes in a small notebook with initials of the students on a separate page. A simple daily journal will help teachers to track their own ideas and observations as well as their students feedback and responses.
The teacher who "observes" more and talks less co-relates to your point of (SPEND LESS TIME DRILLING AND DRONING AND MORE TIME WITH HANDS-ON).
Dr. Montessori said in Education for the New World: "Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment."
Thank you for allowing unlimited words for comments...

Trent Citrano's picture
Trent Citrano
Secondary School Principal - Saint Maur Int'l School - Yokohama, Japan

Thanks so much for putting down your thoughts. I agree that we put far too much emphasis on 'quality teachers' while if we focus on creating 'quality learners' (I see this as students and adults modeling life-long learning) then we naturally develop as a learning community. Beyond your 5 keys listed above, I would add that we need to give opportunities to create resilience and adaptability as well as experimentation in risk-free environments where kids can learn at their own pace and fail without criticism. Rather failure is seen a crucial part of the learning process. I appreciate also that you've included technology tools and the (mind blowing - read with sarcasm) concept of 'find out how I could help each student'. It's really pretty simple when you think about it but it takes us all encouraging this student-centered paradigm shift consistently to get us to a tipping point where we will make a difference for the whole child in order to prepare them for their future.
Thanks again, Ben!
- Trent

Jeanne Z's picture
Jeanne Z
Virtual School Coordinator, St. Lucie Public Schools

Enjoyed this post very much. When students take charge of their learning, their experience is authentic. Educators need to focus on modeling to students how to be authentic learners and spend less time perfecting teaching methods. Our presence on the classroom stage has little value if our students are not engaged in learning now and for the future.
Love all of the comments to Ben's post as well!

Larry Pahl's picture
Larry Pahl
Instructor at Bartlett High School & the Illinois Virtual School

I like the idea of this article that we are responsible as teachers to help our students become better students. We don't need a national one size fits all program like NCLB, we need, in each of our classrooms, to try to get each of our kids from where they are, to what would be the next best step for them. The problem however with an article like this is that it is a bunch of bullet points, written so that somebody can publish something as an article, but it is not really a practical step-by-step "how to" program of how to actually do it. In flipping my two world history classes last semester, I experienced face-to-face time with students more than probably 99.9% of teachers in America, and I mean that literally. You cannot have a class structured in such a way to get more face time than what I had on a daily basis. My experience then, presents a practical limit of how far personalized education from a teacher to a class for about 32 students can be. So I can say with a fair amount of certainty after this experience that it's not possible to give each student what they need. I'm not talking theory now I'm talking about what I actually experienced in the classroom where I was from the beginning to the end of the period involved face-to-face with individual students. Some of my more challenged and lazier students would have just about needed a full-time one to one tutor to actually really make much advance. What a student is really lacking in a certain skill it's not something you're going to fix even if you spend 10 minutes every day with them. And if you do spend 10 minutes every day with them think of all the other students who are not being helped by you. So an article like this seems to be helpful toward helping us help students but my message would be we need to set much more humble goals based on the limitations of the current class sizes we have the most public schools. That is being responsible, practical - not a sellout or resignation of duty. Give me the article that will help me in the trenches to begin doing one or two things, the first baby steps. You can read about my journey with flipping at

CKL_Lit17's picture

Thank you for sharing this article. I noticed that there is a clear difference between students that want to learn and students that think they have to learn. Creating opportunities for students to be in charge of their learning fosters a learning environment for all students to succeed. Your backwards design encouraged me to reflect on my practice in the classroom and to think about what I need to do to improve my student's school experience.

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