Late in 2012, I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post that articulated what I really feel should be and is a role of great teachers. Great teachers are "learning designers" who seek to create a space where all students are empowered to learn. I was further inspired to rearticulate this idea when I saw this video from Sir Ken Robinson:
What really struck me is that great teachers create the conditions for success, just as gardeners do. You can't make a flower grow, but you can design and improve the condition for that flow of naturally occurring events. It's the same for our students. We have the power and the duty to create the best conditions for students to flourish.
For so long, teachers have been disempowered to design. With prescribed curriculum, overly strict pacing guides and the like, teachers have been given little to no opportunity to innovate and design for learning. Personally, this was and is my favorite part about teaching -- the opportunity to design and be creative, to design learning that meets the needs of my students, to try new things -- and perhaps the opportunity to fail. Great learning models and structures have the space for teachers to design for their students while still remaining within the framework. Whether it's a driving question for a PBL project, a mini-task in an LDC unit, an instructional scaffold for a UbD unit, or a assessment for a GBL unit, teachers still have -- and must have -- the space that empowers them to design. If we want our students to be empowered, then we must model this empowerment to be a learning designer. If you haven't designed or been given the space to, this will be difficult. Look for spaces that can challenge your design thinking about what a learning space can be.
Stop Blaming Kids
There is one pitfall in Sir Ken Robinson's metaphor of teachers as gardeners and students as fruit. If you misunderstand this metaphor, you might think that it puts a heavier onus on students. It does not. If your students, like plants, are struggling to grow, perhaps it isn't them. Most likely it's the conditions that are being created for students. Now of course, there are many conditions creating opportunity for growth that may be beyond our control. In fact, you might conduct a Realms and Concern Influence protocol with other staff members to see what you can influence about a particular student. That being said, there is always something that teachers can do or design to create the seeds for growth. Look for opportunities to design rather than fearing roadblocks.
Revise and Reflect
As I mentioned earlier, if students are struggling, it's a great opportunity to revise and reflect on the learning design. Ask yourself:
- Are more voice and choice or self-directed learning needed?
- Should there be some differentiation?
- Perhaps there could have been more formative assessments?
These are just some of the questions I ponder when students are not successful, but there are a whole lot more. These are also some of the questions that colleagues ask me, which goes to show that revision and reflection is a collaborative process as well as an individual one. Related to this, don't be afraid to fail. Consider it "failing forward," and continue designing amazing learning experiences for students. Also consider using protocols to help you reflect on your work in a safe space with colleagues.
Teachers, be empowered to become learning designers for all students. We need to look for these opportunities to design, but we also need to reflect on the current learning designs in our classrooms. Just as our world and our students are always changing, so must our designs for learning!