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 — 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 — 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 — 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

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