Two recent experiences have significantly impacted the way I think about teaching and learning and the importance of student autonomy and volition in our classrooms.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a PD seminar around embedding technology in the classroom. A wonderful goal, really. I think embedded tech is important; in fact, I think it should be the status quo in every classroom, every day. I honestly think there’s little point to tech as an afterthought — something we add on so that we can say we’re doing something “techie,” as if that’s the goal instead of deep, authentic, transformative learning.
As I listened to the presenter, something didn’t sit right with me. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was. So much of what was being discussed I agreed with. Tech needs to be part of the entire learning process: social bookmarking during research, Google Docs to create a common document, virtual collaboration among peers, the creation of technology projects. These are things that I advocate and have implemented in my own classroom. It wasn’t until talk turned to the importance of outlining student objectives at the beginning of each class that it hit me. This is a teacher-centered classroom that’s being advocated â€” the complete opposite of my own classroom.
Students need to be co-creators
As presenter and participants discussed the importance of introducing students to the day’s objectives by posting them where students can see them, I thought, “Why would I do that?” My students know what our objectives are because they’ve chosen them. And they know how they’re going to be assessed because they construct the criteria. Not that they can’t be posted, they can. But what’s really important is who creates the objectives, not where they’re posted.
And that’s when I realized â€” embedded technology is not evidence of a transformational shift in teaching practice. It’s possible to embed technology into every aspect of teaching and learning and still have a completely teacher-centered classroom, with the teacher in control of what is learned, how it’s learned, and for the most part, how students show their learning.
This needs to change.
Powerful learning begins to manifest when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning â€” when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. True student empowerment and engagement begins when we cross the threshold of co-creation.
“You do what the teacher tells you”
My second experience involved my two daughters. Rebekah, who is 7, and Chloe, who is 4, were playing school. Rebekah was the teacher, and she’d spent a fair amount of time creating worksheets for Chloe. She was really proud of the work and effort that went into these magnificent artifacts of learning. Chloe, in her 4-year-old wisdom, didn’t want to do them. “Why?” They weren’t any fun. Maybe we should have more 4-year-olds designing our educational system, but I digress.
Rebekah came to me completely distraught that Chloe wouldn’t jump through her hoops. So I responded from my own experience as a teacher and said, “Well, why don’t you ask Chloe what she wants to learn about?”
Rebekah looked at me and retorted, “That is not what school is like.”
“Well, that’s what my classroom is like.”
Quite emphatically she exclaimed with all of the authority that a seven-year-old can muster: “Well, all the years I’ve been at school I’ve never had a teacher like that. Miss-so and-so didn’t do that, and Mrs. so-and-so didn’t do that. You sit in your desk and do what the teacher tells you. That’s how school works.” And she stomped away.
I knew the assimilation into factory schooling began pretty young, but I didn’t realize how much it had taken hold by grade 3. It was honestly shocking to encounter it face to face, especially with my own daughter. And to try to convince her that there was another way “to do” school was much like trying to convince her that Never Land is real. Students aren’t really asked what they want to learn about. That’s a fairy tale.
We need to make this fairy tale a reality. Student-centered learning is powerful, transformative and life changing, for teachers and students. I’ll be honest, it can be difficult and messy. But once you’ve experienced it — once you’ve hung on for dear life until you see it work its magic — you’ll never go back.
Photos – Creative Commons: quinn.anya & apc33
Latest posts by Shelley Wright (see all)
- Start with Why: The power of student-driven learning - May 8, 2019
- Are You Ready to Join the Slow Education Movement? - August 26, 2014
- Academic Teaching Doesn't Prepare Students for Life - November 7, 2013
You have cut to the essentials of what should be a force driving forward education. Really illustrative example that brings the point home!
I LOVE the sentence, ‘Powerful learning begins to manifest when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning.’ So much of the shift that is driving curriculum reform is exactly THIS … students need to be incharge of THEIR learning. When this is taken into account and becomes the norm rather than the exception, a “culture” of leaning is created. How refreshing would it be when “experts” are committed to learn new things about the topic in which they are “experts!”
I agree — empowering students to be in charge of their learning from the beginning might help create a culture of life long learners, rather than too many students who simply jump through hoops. I think this shift would be a true reform of our education system.
I couldn’t agree more! Your insights are right on target– co-creating a learning environment with students is supportive of deep learning in a way that embedding technology never will be. Tech can be an extremely powerful ally in creating a rich learning environment, but it shouldn’t be the driver, or add to the teacher’s power over students, but rather a powerful tool we explore together. Sad to hear about your daughter’s sense of school. Hopefully soon she’ll experience a teacher like you!
Thanks, Ann! I think because tech was intertwined with inquiry in our classroom, I didn’t realize that tech alone didn’t automatically create a rich learning environment. It now seems common sense!
Thank you for reminding me why I found my summer school US History so wonderfully exhausting and why I have been fighting myself over the dailiness of my regular year US History course. Of course, my summer school course was predicated on tapping into student interest. Right now, I am in process of jump starting and jumping over whole periods of time even as I know that starting 10/12 we will shift back into student interest. That is where we need to stay. I need to set a frame — 19th Century Reform Movements, the US Civil War, the Gilded Age– and then work with students to shape their work.
Who knew summer school would be so liberating and that the lessons learned in this experiment in blended learning would be so apparently difficult to translate into the regular, bricks and mortar year.
Good for you that you’re struggling to integrate what you know is best for students. It’s not easy. I think blended learing provides opportunities that face to face may not, but I think face to face also allows for a high degree of learning autonomy too. It’s finding the balance, which isn’t easy. Good luck to you!
Dear Shelley, your post reminds us why teaching can be exhausting and messy. It is really the students who need to take ownership, which means some classroom learning will simply be unpredictable. Of course, this approach, which I agree with, counters what pre-service and beginning teachers are taught–which is that they need to script the plan. It takes a degree of confidence to challenge students to set the pace, determine learning activities, and so forth. In the age of an assessment driven culture, high stakes testing, and so forth, we are challenged to put the fun back into learning by letting students determine the shape of their learning.
I think student-centred learning puts the fun back into learning not only for students, but teachers as well. But it’s not easy. Whenever I talk to teachers about inquiry, I never sugarcoat this fact. It’s hard, messy and downright disasterous at time. But it’s also amazing, and that makes it all worthwhile.
I do wonder about what pre-service teachers learn. I’m not sure what the average teaching program looks like. But it seems like we’re putting out the same old thing, and until that radically changes, I’m guessing we’re going to keep having the same fight
You are so correct with your technology statement. We should remember how technology is just another way of sharing information with students – and learning is SO much more than just information transfer! So, why does it often get so hard to communicate that with other educators? My thought is because learning and teaching are two different phenomena – yet we tend to speak about them using the same terminology, and that is really confusing, just like you noted in the beginning of your very nice post.
While I agree that student-led inquiry is the foundation for any real learning experience, direct teacher guidance is needed in some cases. As a Montessori teacher, I am comfortable with a student-led environment and have seen its magic. However, I now teach in an inner-city middle school. Most of my students have been acculturated not to inquire about the world around them. I literally have to teach them to question. What you describe is the world of the elite. People with resources, time and fully met needs. My students desperately need an adult who will teach them, and teach them well, so they can achieve in the world. I define objectives in the beginning and wait for the questions to guide our learning, but I am definitely the driver here.
I’m not sure what you’re describing here is the result of socioeconomics, although it wouldn’t surprise me if socioeconomics contributes to it. I think all kids are curious when they’re young. However, by the time my students arrive in my grade 10 classroom, they’ve lost all curiousity too. They ask few questions beyond, “Will this be on the exam and what is my mark?
I think this is the result of the factory education system. In a way, it’s acculturation too. Most kids learn there’s no real point to asking questions in class. I’m asked frequently by teachers if my students are naturally curious. Like you, I have to begin to kindle this desire, and it can be a long process, but eventually, for many of them, they begin to see the power of asking and pursuing their own questions.
It was a breath of fresh air to read your post. I facilitate a unit called ICT in the classroom and the aim of this unit is to assist pre-service teachers gain skills and knowledge about how ICT can be used by students as cognitive tools to support authentic learning tasks. We look at the pedagogy first and then at how ICT can support it.
I have added your article to our Diigo library and hope all prospective students will read it and be encouraged to take small steps when they get into their own classrooms to “buck the system” and implement meaningful learning opportunities that encourage deeper thinking. As these are the skills our children will need to survive in our ever changing, ever challenging world.
Thanks for sharing my work. I really appreciate it!
I enjoyed reading this post and have forwarded it on to my other colleagues who also facilitate the training you saw. One caveat I usually refer to during the section on setting objectives (did I not do so this summer? If not, my mistake!) is that, as classrooms morph into more differentiated and student-led environments (which we want to happen), the idea of posting learning objectives for the whole class seems silly. What we do firmly believe in is that students should, at all times, be aware of what their ultimate learning goal is for doing what they’re doing. I can think of many times when students were “doing” a project, yet when asked what the purpose was, the student wasn’t able to answer. In a 1-1, individualized, student-led environment, I would still want the students to be able to articulate what their learning objectives are, especially if they chose them. For some, they may need to type them out at the top of their wiki page or jot them down on a note-taking app. Others may not need to do this.
Again, if I omitted this from this summer’s presentation, my mistake. I agree that instructional strategies will morph as classrooms evolve.
What an article! I strongly believe that technology has a place in education. However, I do see educators running towards the “technology light”.
With the iPad now populating classrooms teachers are going “app crazy”. They are downloading apps without really understanding the purpose of the device. My goal is to help educator make an informed decision. Technology should not be a distraction.
I too strongly believe technology has a place in education! Like you say, it’s important to understand why a tool is useful and what types of skills it promotes, rather than simply playing with tools because it’s “neat”.
My pleasure, Shelley, as is reading all the follow-ups. The more action , and action planning, inspired by your Deep Learning … post, the better
Sorry, this doesn’t fit any of your categories. I just ran across a re-post of Shelly Wright’s “Deep Learning Isn’t about Technology.” It struck a chord with my thoughts and feelings about technology and education.
One paragraph in the post particularly impressed me: “Powerful learning begins to manifest when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning â€” when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. True student empowerment and engagement begins when we cross the threshold of co-creation.”
It made me think about Will Richardson’s eBook (in the Kindle bookstore on Amazon.com) – “Why School?” In it, he states,
“In this new narrative, learning ceases to focus on consuming information or knowledge that’s no longer scarce. Instead, it’s about asking questions, working with others to find the answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming. It’s about developing the kinds of habits and dispositions that deep, lifelong learners need to succeed in a world rife with information and connections. The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery. That means students have more ownership over their own learning, using their access to knowledge and teachers to create their own unique paths to the outcomes we, and they, deem important.
In this version of reform, schools and classrooms are seen as nodes in a much larger learning network that expands far beyond the local walls. Students are encouraged to connect with others, and to collaborate and create with them on a global scale. It’s not “do your own work,” so much as “do work with others, and make it work that matters.” To paraphrase Tony Wagner, assessments focus less on what students know, and more on what they can do with what they know. And, as Dewey espoused, school is “real life,” not simply a place to take courses, earn grades, amass credits, and compete against others for recognition.”
Director of Technology – College of Education & Human Services
Director of the Adele & Dale Young Education Technology Center (The YETC)
Director of the NASA Educator Resource Center at Utah State University