Arms of stuents pointing to screen of laptop

I know a high school student who is quite amazing. She’s keen. She’s hungry. She wants to be challenged. She’s also bored out of her mind. Frustrated. Angry. Because the truth is, she’s just jumping through hoops, and she knows it.

In the graded world, She’s a 95-percent student, and like many of our most capable students, she’s disengaged from her learning. Studies have shown that many of top students are simply “doing school.” In fact, an entire book has been written about it.

Girl sitting on steps looking board

She’s a student who would thrive in an environment that allowed her to co-create her education.  An environment that would allow her to spend 20 percent of school time pursuing her own interests — that would challenge her through inquiry, learning to collaborate on projects with students in other cities, provinces and countries.

She would thrive after being asked: “What do you want to learn?” “What do you want to read?” “What matters to you?” And then taking her answers and the curricular outcomes and designing a learning plan that incorporated all of this, plus embedded technology.

But she can’t

She’s stuck in a traditional school, in a traditional classroom, and she’s just putting in time. What a waste. But the truth is there are thousands of students bogged down in this exact situation.

In all honesty, I used to run one of those classrooms.  But at a pivotal point in my teaching journey, I was presented with the opportunity to do things differently.  I won’t pretend for a moment that it’s been easy.  It hasn’t.  But it’s been worth every moment, to see my classroom come alive.  I shared part of the story here in a recent TEDx talk:

We start in the wrong place

So often in education we focus on the wrong things. Test scores. Marks. Awards. Simon Sinek has it right. We need to start with why. So often we start with other things like the what (curriculum) and the how (instructional strategies). I’m not saying content isn’t important. I want my doctor, lawyer & accountant to all know their content. But we’ve lost sight that it’s what you do with the content that matters. Memorizing & regurgitating falls miserably short of equipping our students.

As Sinek states:

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.  When I say why, I don’t mean to make money — that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief. WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

I think teachers and school organizations need to ask themselves the Why questions, beginning with: Why do we own the learning and not our students? Or, as Will Richardson so eloquently posits, Why School?

Why do we have so many students like the one I know, frustrated and bored, just waiting to be challenged? We’ve made education about manipulation and hoops instead of inspiring our students to pursue learning that matters to them — learning that can help them make a difference in our communities and the world.

When I ask someone why they became a teacher, often it’s because they “love kids” or “want to make a difference.”  That’s a pretty vague why.

 So what do I believe? What is my why?

I believe students are fully competent to be co-creators of their own learning environments.

I believe that students can change the world; they are not the future; they are right now.

I believe that students need skills that go far beyond the content of most curricula.

Young female student falling asleep on textbooks with two post-its on her eyes. Bored and needs student-driven learning.

I believe that students want to learn, but often they lack the environment that sparks the emergence of passionate, life-long learners.

I believe that my students have a voice and it should be heard.

I believe students can read at their appropriate grade level and still be illiterate.

I believe that each of my students has unique talents and interests that should merge with our learning environment at school.

I believe my students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled.

I believe that my students need to develop metacognitive skills and make their thinking visible.

I believe that students are fully capable of differentiating their own learning.

I believe my students are creative and can teach me important things.

I believe school shouldn’t be a place where young people go to watch older people work hard.

I believe, if given the chance and the right support, my students will become more than they ever thought they could be.

I believe that once students begin to see their talents and gifts, they will grow in confidence.

As a teacher:

I believe that my classroom should be a place of joy, engagement, learning and play.

I believe that I should be less helpful.

I believe that I should ask more questions, and offer fewer answers.

I believe that I should model what learning, failing, grit & perseverance look like.

I believe that I should take risks, even when I’m afraid.

I believe it’s crucial to use content to teach skills.

I believe that the most important question I often ask my students is, “What do you need?”

I believe that I am not the all-knowing guru, nor do I want to be.

I believe I need to be transparent with my learning and who I am.

I believe that kids need a life outside of school, so I don’t believe in homework — at least not the rote, meaningless stuff that’s usually assigned.

The how and what come from our why

What we truly believe about our students informs the structures of our classrooms. Whose voices are heard most frequently? Whose are silenced?  Our beliefs about students dictate who designs and drives the learning. Is it student-driven learning?

In my own classroom, the how has taken the form of an inquiry-based, PBL, tech-embedded classroom. My students drive the learning, and starting with curricular outcomes, outline what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, and how they’re going to show me their learning.

The what has resulted in my students creating a Holocaust museum, launching a multi-media campaign against modern day slavery, and (as you heard in the video) raising over $22,000 to help rebuild schools in a war-torn country. They also work on much smaller projects, individually and collaboratively. But we never start with what. We always start with why.

What stops teachers from putting the Why first?

Fear. I think we’re afraid. I think we’re afraid of losing control and looking incompetent. I think we’re afraid of not knowing what will happen. I think we’re afraid that we won’t figure out how to shift our classroom or use the new technology. I think we’re afraid of being different than the other teachers in our school — of being an outcast.

The truth is, I’ve felt all these fears and experienced all of these situations. But I still wouldn’t teach differently than I do now.

There’s a power in student-driven learning that’s contagious and exhilarating. Being an inquiry teacher has made me a better thinker and learner. It’s made me a better Educator with a capital “E”.

If you want to join me in making a difference, start with WHY.

The original version of this post, written by Shelley Wright, appeared in this blog June 2013.

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