George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Have you ever attended a conference session and seen groups of teachers leave in the middle? It's painful to watch, yet completely understandable. Often, they leave because the session was not what they expected. Let's be honest: when teachers and/or administrators attend learning experiences, what is the one non-negotiable expectation -- without which the session is deemed a failure?

Answer: Leaving with skills and strategies that can be used immediately to impact instruction and work-related responsibilities.

Achieving this goal means understanding what the participants value, and engaging them in those areas. Effective professional development caters to what teachers think will help them become more effective. This also applies to their students. The learners may not be allowed to leave the classroom when the instruction doesn't involve them, but there are many other ways that they check out.

Student-centered classrooms include students in planning, implementation, and assessments. Involving the learners in these decisions will place more work on them, which can be a good thing. Teachers must become comfortable with changing their leadership style from directive to consultative -- from "Do as I say" to "Based on your needs, let's co-develop and implement a plan of action."

This first of my three posts on student-centered classrooms starts with the educator. As the authority, teachers decide if they will "share" power by empowering learners.

Allow Students to Share in Decision Making

Placing students at the center of their own learning requires their collaboration. They need a voice in why, what, and how learning experiences take shape.

Why is about relevance. Learners need to understand the value of the subject, vocabulary, and skills before they are willing to invest effort. The answers "It's required curriculum," "You need it for the test," or "Because I say it's important" are intended to save time, but they only result in students giving lip service to the rest of instruction. Showing relevance from students' perspective is similar to teachers experiencing professional development that is job-embedded.

What is learned involves students choosing the focus of content. Let their interests drive the content that teaches skills and concepts. For example, when learning how to write persuasively, some students may want to deconstruct commercials, product reviews, op-eds, and/or social issue points of view. The best strategy is simply asking what students want to explore. Start with a brainstorm of what they like to do, and dialog together to match their interests with the skills and concepts.

How learning will be demonstrated depends on the different ways that students processes understanding. Offer a variety of product options based on what you know about your students. A safe approach is to offer three options. The teacher designs two options based on what most students may like to do. The third choice is a blank check -- students propose their own product or performance. If a proposal meets the academic requirements, perhaps with some negotiation, the student gets a green light. Some examples include using Minecraft to design models and prototypes, presenting through social media tools, or writing in a professional medium.

Believe in Students' Capacity to Lead

Give students the chance to take charge of activities, even when they may not quite have all the content skills. Students are accomplished education consumers. The child in third grade knows three years of teaching and learning, and the high school sophomore has experienced ten years.

While content increases in complexity, the school environment does not change dramatically. Students experience math, science, English, and history, plus other subjects, and interact with education experts (teachers). Veteran students, like experienced teachers, know what types of learning experiences work best for themselves.

Reduce teacher direct instruction by increasing student-led learning activities. Some approaches include:

Recognize That Students Are Reflections of Us as Learners

When educators feel that their professional experiences are respected during workshops and courses, their buy-in and involvement increases. Confidence rises as they understand how their existing expertise fits into the new concepts being taught.

Children and teens have the same need for curriculum to be presented in a context that's meaningful to them. They need to understand how their existing talents fit and how they can confidently apply the skills in a meaningful way to their lives outside of school. Show real-world relationships where possible in lessons. For a deeper experience, have students apply the skills in ways that support or enhance their current "real world." This can be approached in individual lessons or as a unit. For example, Loudoun County (Virginia) teachers, led by Dr. Eric Williams, launched One to World, which provides student-centered learning experiences.

Give Up Need for Control

My fifth-grade son shared these words of wisdom regarding school vs. home activities: "Why do they (teachers) keep talking about the real world out there? This is my real world."

Children and teens produce volumes of content through social media, such as YouTube, podcasts, Minecraft, and Twitch. Some earn money in the process. For their passions, these youths generate a following and join others as they establish and extend social networks. When these same content authors and entrepreneurs enter schools, all that they know and can produce is set aside. Yet when they leave school, they collect skills left outside and reconnect with their real-world networks.

Students bring much to the table that would engage and deepen their learning journey. My next two posts will delve into empowering learners in a student-centered classroom. The difficult challenge -- and first step -- is teacher commitment to reflect on practices that support students taking the lead.

Embrace the possibilities.

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

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Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

It's easy for us as teachers to forget that students spend a great portion of the day following narrow directives, but their ravenously curious brains are primed to engage the world through open and active experimentation. We need to do our best to give students autonomy to make decisions, engage creatively with material, make mistakes and go deeper at their own pace. The hardest part for us as teachers is giving up control--teachers also operate under time-constrained directives and herding cats is difficult. My method as a high school math teacher has been to create small-group investigations which function something like science experiments. If the classroom is structured around collaborative learning and expectations are clear, the delightfully unpredictable process of curious students exploring patterns, articulating ideas and refining their understanding can be a joy to behold. I wrote this post to support this article, not to promote my materials, but I will nevertheless put the obligatory link to my stuff below. Thanks for the article and I look forward to your subsequent installments on the topic.

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

I'm a proponent of expanding student autonomy and voice, too but I think it should be tailored in order to be age appropriate. Younger students often need more structure and direction even while they are exploring their interests. So while I love your pedagogical approach and particularly your son's sagacity, it is important that younger students be appropriately introduced to such impactful decisions. Do you agree?

Brian Davison's picture

Teachers have been engaging students for decades. However, recently this notion of "project-based learning" disregards the content that kids must understand about the world to receive a well-rounded education and just focuses on a few "fun" projects. It's more about getting recognition for administrators by creating student videos than teaching the base material needed by K-12 students.

Let's look at Dr. Williams of Loudoun County mentioned in the article. He has an abysmal track record. In his previous district of York County, VA (through 2014) he accumulated some of the worst student growth scores in all of Virginia. York has very bright students who score well on tests but their growth showed that this "project-based learning" approach was not teaching kids what they needed to learn. Virginia has refashioned its SOL tests to focus on skills rather than memorization due to the ESEA rules. But York County's growth on these skills-based tests were among the bottom 1/5 in Virginia and dropped every year that Williams was in York. As soon as Williams left York County, their SOL scores (and subsequent growth) increased at TWICE the rate of other districts in Virginia.

Fast forward to Loudoun County. We have among the top 3 highest household incomes in the US so we naturally have high test scores. But our growth has not been stellar. In addition, our schools took the PISA test which is strictly based on the application of skills. The results are compared to schools around the US and the world. How did we score?

1. We underperformed not only similar schools in the US but we underperformed similar SES kids in EVERY OECD country around the world. Yet Williams and other administrators claim that's just "great".

2. Our students were less likely to think math was important to their careers that other US students. Apparently, our teachers don't know how to show our students why math is important.

3. Our students were less likely to think their teachers cared about their well-being than the bottom 10% of schools in the US.

Williams and co. have foresaken virtually all testing. No more midterms or final exams. Instead, students should make sure they befriend other students with stay-at-home moms who can produce a spectacular project for the kids. That's the way to get good grades in Loudoun. And who care if you understand algebra, geometry or science. As long as you ponder how to better distribute mosquito nets in Africa (Williams loves such "social justice" projects over any STEM material), then our students will be great. Maybe administrators such as Williams will get headlines, but our students will be sorely lacking in the STEM skills needed to compete. I wonder if folks like Williams have ever taken a single STEM class in their life after high school?!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Brian, agree that content is important, but I think at the core of PBL is the skills necessary for students to understand how to learn: Critical thinking, social/emotional learning, analysis etc. It might seem like an education buzzword, and at times it is since it's so overused. But PBL is something that we used to do when I was in elementary. It doesn't take away from the importance of content, because often times the project revolves around some sort of subject/ theme. I think having a balance is important in the classroom. Focus on content is important but it shouldn't be more important than knowing how to learn, and why learning this content is significant and relevant to students' understanding.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Brian,
When I work with teachers on project design, we start with a focus on key content and competencies (which are also at the top of Williams's list). The resulting project may, indeed, be enjoyable for students, but it's not fluffy. Those culminating products you mention might be videos or physical objects, but also might be arguments that students make before an audience of decision-makers, such as city council or panel of experts. When students defend their thinking, cite evidence, and explain the benefits of their solutions, it's a chance to see how deeply they understand (and are able to apply) those key concepts. For a look at how this might work in the STEM fields, you might be interested in the resource described in this post:

Umar Muhammad's picture

It is the real thing.We have to understand our learners and believe in their ability to direct the learning experiences offered in the classroom.

elizabeth.albert's picture

It is truly an instructional shift to hand over the control of the learning to the students. However, who really needs to take ownership of the learning; the teacher or the student? In order for students to make connections and internalize the content we are teaching, they must find value and a purpose associated with it. Allowing students to make choices about how they demonstrate what they have learned empowers students to become engaged and to internalize the content. Increased engagement leads to greater student achievement. The more the students are allowed to participate in the planning and development of the learning, the role of the teacher can shift from director to facilitator.

T.Jackson's picture

I believe that student-centered learning is very important in today's classrooms. Some teachers don't feel comfortable with giving up control of their classrooms. Students nowadays work well together if the teacher models how a student-centered learning environment should look. Once the students get used to having this type of environment and the teacher also feels comfortable with giving up some of her control student-centered learning environments can work. I feel that students are more engaged in the lessons in a student-centered environment.

Mpumi Mgidlana's picture

I totally agree with the points you have raised T. Jackson. The current generation is more about handling and dealing with ideas themselves rather than being spoon-fed. From experience, I would students become more creative with their solutions in a student-centred environment.

a.contrada's picture

If the idea is to promote life long learning, then it is important to teach students how to learn. By giving them autonomy and allowing them to make meaningful connections with their world, will motivate them to continually seek information. I find it interesting that individuals feel teachers give up control in student-centered learning environments. I think we need to change the meaning of control in this context.

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