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.
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 â€” 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.
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.
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
I really enjoyed the statements about your beliefs. It makes me want to reevaluate some of my own statements. Thank you for sharing.
Why should educators blog? This post is a perfect example. You hit a home run here Shelley! I totally agree, “why” drives reflection, inquiry, and change. Thanks for creating and sharing this awesome piece.
And these are the very reasons that Sudbury Valley School ( http://www.sudval.org ) and schools modelled on it are popping up and thriving all over the world.
Thanks for the post.
I agree. I just long for the day when every public school functions the same way 🙂
Congrats on a well-written and much needed article. It really helps me to think about continuing my shift of classroom culture.
Last year I taught math which is a big change from my usual science class. I have to say that student-driven learning was my goal (having just tried it out for a year in a science classroom). But I met so much resistance. Mostly from parents who felt like students owning the learning in math was less than optimal.
Despite my efforts to educate parents and students, take small steps and scaffold the transition from a worksheet-based classroom into more that was more thinking-oriented and inquiry oriented…it was a tough, tough year. Kids and parents much preferred worksheets where they knew if they got the answer right almost immediately and found that it wasn’t so stressful.
Maybe it was diverting away from worksheet based HW and into higher level thinking kinds of HW (for example…instead of 40 quadratic problems to solve, students had to research real world example of where a quadratic might occur and explain the variables they’d find in the equation—not create an equation).
I think it resurfaced many of the math wars kinds of conversations and it took a toll on me. Despite the fact that student learning grew more than the expected amount for all my classes, parents didn’t feel like their students “learned” enough. I think student-driven, inquiry oriented learning masks some of the benchmarks that parents find re-assuring.
Definitely I’d need to do more parent education the next time around. And I’d probably do less radical changes in order to ease students into having to think on their own.
I was so shocked when I read your comments because I could have written almost every word. In February, I moved to an admin position at one of our elementary schools, and I ended up teaching grade 6 & 8 math. I had the same experience. Push back from kids. Push back from parents & others.
I did have a class of grade 6’s who absolutely loved learning this way, but it was still often difficult. But most of the grade 8’s wanted little to do with it. It was a frustrating & eye opening 5 months.
And yet, I’m guessing if I had been teaching science, or English, that wouldn’t have been case.
Thanks for sharing your experience. You have no idea how validating it is to learn that I’m not the only one. Thanks!
Shelly and Marsha,
So encouraged by both your posts! My experience was the same. I teach a 7/8th grade Art class called Project Discovery. We explore the intersection of Art and each of the core content areas.
I have learned that adding differentiated levels of inquiry helps my students find their “just a bit uncomfortable zone”. With each new unit, I place more options on the table for self-guided learning. Sadly, some never choose an open-ended pathway over one that is clearly defined. On the bright side, most do.
Shelley, this is a powerful post with a much-needed perspective shift. It is so difficult for many of us (educators) to take the same risks in our teaching as we inspire to cultivate for our students in their learning. What a lens shift to throw out the “system” of teaching and replace it with the potential for facilitating learning. What a dark – and exhiliarating – place for pedagogy to evolve. Thank you.
You have articulated your thoughts and beliefs so eloquently and clearly. What you share not only makes sense, it is inspiring and hopeful. I am going to share your post with other educators as I think we all have something to learn from it.
The challenge is very much in the execution and ability to assess knowledge. I have two children that have been in classroom settings using this method. Some educators execute like rock stars. They are engaged with each student and can tell you exactly what each needs to focus on in order to keep pace. Other educators simply check out. Tell kids to watch a video at home and class time is effectively homework time any if you have a question raise your hand. Simply speaking a total joke. My son’s 9th grade math teacher so checked out during class time he went to desk during class to see her chatting with her husband on facebook. It also leads to leaving kids behind because assessments are abandoned and only a couple of grading events a semester with teachers not providing measurable assessment of knowledge nearly as frequently. Then when the student scores poorly it is too late with a teachers shrugging and saying I guess he could not learn it. But I have also seen very effective execution where the teacher is engaged and interactive with kids during class. With great results. In my view their are material land mines but its about the educator and frankly some educators do not know how to do it and the kids suffer for it. Experimentation for the sake of experimenting is fine in the chemistry lab but when it is a child’s brain.
As a trainee teacher this is highly interesting to read and opens a lot of doors. Can you give more detailed information about how you actually (physically, literally) handled the beginning of this new phase in your teaching? What did you say etc.
Also, could you tell me what age the kids are who you teach this style of learning with and what their behaviour was like before you began it? I currently teach a range from age 11 to 18, and can’t see it possibly working with the fussy 11 and 12 year olds, nor the 13-14 year-olds who are particularly in their awkward, unhelpful, uninterested teenage phase at the moment, and generally take me as a joke…any suggestions for whether this would even work with a group with behaviour issues?
That was a great post. I have listening to Simon Sinek’s lectures for a few month and have been trying to figure out how to make his concepts work for education, and found your blog complete by chance! I was curious if you had any thought on how this educational model would work in a band class, that has to perform in public a lot. Although I love my subject matter, it is sometimes hard to find time to actually teach. It seems like I am always preparing my students for the next show. Loved your post