George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A parent asked me for advice about an assignment that her son did not want to do. He had to research the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright and create a presentation that included a diorama. He wasn't interested in doing any of the work. She could make him comply, but the quality of his research and everything that followed would be in jeopardy.

"Does he play Minecraft?" I asked.

"Yes," the mom said.

"Why doesn't he create the 3D model in Minecraft?"

Her son was ecstatic. He dove into the research, created the 3D model, and rocked the presentation with enthusiasm.

Teachers must embrace their students' capacity to learn through leading when given the chance -- as the previous posts in this series have suggested. Letting students take charge of how they learn leads to high engagement, in-depth inquiry, and quality work.

Student-Developed Products Based on Learning Targets

We invest the most in tasks that we get to choose. What if the learning outcome is evaluating counterarguments and creating one for a community purpose? Students could develop a 10- to 20-minute documentary, podcast commentary, or staged debate on a social media platform. Each task requires research analysis of different viewpoints by authors and social media commentators. Students develop a well-reasoned script that goes through several revisions before the final production.

There are many apps and tools that students can use to demonstrate understanding of concepts in any subject. How?

Ask the students. Give them the outcome result and charge them with the challenge to use any available tools via high and low tech.

Start small. Give students three choices. The first two choices are teacher-structured with the requirements and methods laid out. Include one or two wildcard elements that students have a voice in shaping. As the third choice, offer a blank check, challenging students to design the task. Give them the learning targets that they must demonstrate. They propose a plan, and you determine if it's acceptable.

Student-Developed Rubrics

Rubrics are a valuable tool for formative assessment. First and foremost, rubrics provide information to students and teachers about how learning is progressing. It's an ongoing coaching tool for self-assessment, peer coaching, and teacher support of the quality of work and the areas for growth.

Students need to understand the rubric for its formative assessment power to be realized, and there lies the challenge. At best, understanding a teacher-created rubric requires repeated review over time before "most" students understand it at a proficient level. It's the same as when a teacher teaches a unit for the first time using lesson plans written by another teacher -- it's possible, and the person will improve over time. Yet with rubrics, how much time do teachers and students have?

Teachers can save time by including students in designing the rubric. When students craft the descriptors, they develop a common understanding of what quality learning looks like. The best part is that, typically, students establish rigorous expectations that they would not buy into if the teacher gave them the same document. It may take a class 20-40 minutes to co-develop high-quality expectations that the students design, understand, and agree to complete. That's time well spent.

Student-Led Conferences

Over several years, when my children conducted student-led conferences, I learned more about their academic growth than at any parent-teacher conference. It helped that the teacher didn't sit in on the conversation so that the students could lead.

Parent-teacher conferences are about the adults discussing the student's progress without her being part of the conversation. The student might be present, but she only gets to respond to topics set by the adults. The result is that the adults are doing the heavy lifting while the student daydreams about what she'll be doing when the meeting is over.

Student-led conferences are excellent opportunities for students to explore and reflect on their learning journey. When they facilitate the conversation with parents or guardians, the rich benefits are in the students' preparations prior to the meeting. They review products that show their growth during the marking period. They analyze how the work connects with their grades or standards-based competencies and evaluate next steps for continued growth.

Here are some resources to explore this amazing approach:

Set Students Free to Learn With You

As a parent of two children, I've experienced different instructional approaches, from progressive public K-8 programs such as Montessori to a project-based learning high school. My teens had experiences where they were encouraged to construct their learning and establish academic criteria -- for example, Innovation Days at their high school.

The students spent two days designing and developing ideas that fueled their passions. One group of students played percussion instruments for hours, experimenting with beats and sounds. Only one of them used a standard drum kit. The rest played with drumsticks on a variety of surfaces. In a science room, students built motorized vehicles, while a student in another room attempted to explain the abstract science concepts behind the chapter that she was writing. Teachers coached or provided the muscle that students requested to attain their vision.

On the second day, after some revision time, students presented their works to the school community. My daughter spent hours on her presentation, forgoing her usual free-time passions. Based on interviewing the students, I recognized significant practice of ELA standards, including the writing process (Wri. 5), organization of ideas (Wri. 4), and speaking and listening.

When teachers trust students to lead their learning by giving more open-ended opportunities that challenge them to find their way, students will delve deeper into content and set their expectations higher than is required.

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Empowering Student Voice
This series offers strategies to promote student voice in the classroom and beyond.

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Adam Buchbinder's picture
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

How do you balance the desire of many students to take greater ownership of their learning and who may be apt to create their own models of assessment with the kids that require for more direction from a teacher? This is something that I face in my classes. I'd love to hear your advice.

John's picture

I would like to add one of my encounter in the class to your post. I was teaching my students about graphing linear functions and i discovered that all the boys in my class were planning to play mine craft as a team in the weekend. I decided that they all bring their laptop to class and we played the game together after school and my laptop was hooked to the projector. we all synchronized the game through a WiFi connection and as we played the game, I began to use the scenarios to explain the concepts involved in graphing linear functions (that is the slope and the intercept). It was a fun adventure and presently all my students can efficient plot their linear function graphs because of the gaming experience. Differentiation really works if the teacher uses the right tool to explain the intending lesson concept.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

That's awesome!!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

John, talk about taking advantage of a teachable moment. I agree with Laura... awesome.

Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL's picture
Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL
PBL and Inclusion thought partner in Berkeley CA

Much appreciated, John! Adding a few instructional strategies- student collection and analysis of high quality exemplars, student-to-student critique and opportunity for revision- further supports high quality outcomes from student chosen project formats.

Mickey Steib's picture

There is a side to differentiation that seems neglected. There are different capabilities and knowledge to be gained from the same subject. Some students prefer and excel with certain capabilities and knowledge in a subject while others may do so with quite different capabilities and knowledge. In a mathematics subject such as calculus or differential equations, there exists the capability to think through the logic that shows what follows from a set of axioms along with the knowledge on how to approach coming up with a proof or counter example for a conjecture. There is also the capability to use the equations and facts that have been proven to be correct and usable. A student may trust that the proofs have been done and use the results of such proofs to work problems in appropriate applications. Each of these is valuable. They require different levels of memorization and creativity. Some students may excel in one and not the other. Right?

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