Student-driven classrooms: Who does the hard work of learning?

11/15/2012  |  LAURA THOMAS, MEd.
classroom management

When I heard Charlotte Danielson say those words, I was struck by what my students would call a BFO – a “blinding flash of the obvious.” Learning is hard work if the learning is powerful and authentic. Teaching is hard too, but it shouldn’t be harder than learning. So why are the classrooms I visit filled with students who have lots and lots of energy to create mayhem and with teachers who seem harried and exhausted as they run from place to place trying to provide all the information and answer all the questions? If the learner does the learning, why are the teachers doing the hardest work in the classroom?

The exceptions, however, are the classrooms I visit when I’m coaching student-driven classrooms run by teachers working to implement the Critical Skills Classroom model, either via Antioch University New England’s graduate program or their district’s professional development efforts. As teachers gain proficiency with Critical Skills and other student-driven models, we find that the balance shifts in their classrooms; students are working harder and teachers are working differently — as guides, facilitators, observers and assessors. In these classrooms we see teachers who are energized and students who leave the room exhausted but exhilarated by their efforts — the hallmark of student-centered instruction.

The trip across the instructional river from traditional teaching to student-centered learning is a not a quick one and it can be intimidating for some. We like to provide a series of four “lily pads” to provide (temporary) landing spots as our teachers make the journey from one bank to the other. Lily pads being what they are, however, they don’t provide the stability required for a long stay — keep moving forward at a steady pace or you’ll end up in deep water!

1. Within a Community Anything is Possible — Without One, Nothing Is

Start with the Collaborative Learning Community (CLC) — it’s the secret to instructional success. Building a CLC isn’t something we do to students; it’s something we do with them. Begin by providing opportunities for everyone to gain new knowledge about one another (including you!), focusing on names, basic information, preferred working and learning styles, skills and talents. Build trust by creating opportunities for students to solve problems together — real problems connected to both the classroom community and content-based problems. Create things together — systems, rituals and traditions as well as products demonstrating content knowledge gained — as a way of creating and maintaining classroom culture. Work hard together, because nothing builds community like meaningful work, but also find time to play! Enjoy the unique qualities that your students bring to your classroom and you will reap a more powerful instructional harvest.

2. Clarity, Clarity, Clarity

When students don’t know what we expect, they either give up or they guess — and odds are they’ll guess wrong. Gain clarity about both the content you want students to learn and the process skills you want them to demonstrate while they’re working. In the Critical Skills Classroom, we talk about creating Quality Criteria for and with our students. Start with the basics of classroom operations — Quality Audience, Quality Worker, Quality Conversation — and spend time breaking those down into a simple T-Chart. What does it look and sound like when we have a Quality Audience? A Quality Conversation? What should the teacher see when students are being Quality Workers or creating Quality Work? (You can break that down into more discrete skills later on. What does it look like when students are communicating effectively? Collaborating? Being organized?)

Use Quinn’s Six Questions (Juli Quinn, PhD, 1994) to gain clarity about content. I’m amazed at how frequently teachers will know what they are covering — e.g., punctuation, the American Revolution, mitosis and meiosis, etc. — but they can’t articulate to me what students will show to demonstrate they understand the content. This is particularly true when students are engaged in the higher-level thinking required by the Common Core. For example, a teacher may tell me that her students are “doing” Romeo and Juliet and that they’ll be required to take a test on the plot and present a scene from the play at the end of the unit, but the questions, “What are students supposed to be showing they know?” and “How will you know if they know it?” seem to flummox them.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I teaching? What are the content standards and the skills/ dispositions/habits/behaviors my students need to know and demonstrate at the culmination of this unit or lesson?
  • Why am I teaching it? What use is this content to my students?
  • How am I teaching it? Is this an opportunity for a service learning project? An inquiry-driven unit? What role, if any, can technology play? How can I shift the responsibility for learning — the hard work — onto the students? What is going on in the community or the world that connects to this?
  • Why am I teaching it this way? Is this simply the way I learned it? The way the others in my department teach it? Is it connected to a district/state mandate or initiative?
  • How do I know my kids are getting it? What concrete, observable behaviors and products will be demonstrated and created? How will I know if they’re done and done well? What are the criteria by which I’ll judge them?
  • How do the kids know they are getting it? What reflective techniques will I use to help the students assess their own learning? How can I be sure they understand what they’re learning and how they can use it in the future?

3. Assess What Matters Most

The biggest complaint I hear from teachers trying to use student-centered methods is that there are too many pieces to manage so that the assessment and evaluation processes become overwhelming. In response, I remind them that they are probably trying to assess too many things at once — and that they most likely lack clarity about what they’re looking for — about what really matters in the work the students are doing. Those Quality Criteria we created above when you were building the CLC? We use that same system to create three kinds of Quality Criteria for more complex work.

  1. Form Criteria — describe what the work will look like. How long will the presentation be? How many pages is the paper? How many colors are expected in the poster? What size should it be? How many slides should the PowerPoint include?
  2. Content Criteria — make clear the specific information that has to be included, be it the Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy and how they are represented in the student’s life, the stages of mitosis vs. meiosis, or the means by which the three branches of government accomplish the checks and balances required in our democracy. This is where the clarity gained above will come in handy because you’re looking for only the content that matters most when it comes to grading the work. Other interesting pieces might be included – and should be recognized and awarded, of course – but the minimum content to be demonstrated is made crystal clear by the Content Criteria.
  3. Process Criteria  — are the things the teacher will see and hear while the students are working as they demonstrate the skill or disposition being intentionally targeted (alongside the content) by the project. If your students are struggling to stay on task, the process criteria should break “On Task” down into concrete, observable behaviors. If they struggle with listening, then “Communication” should be broken down in the same way. By working with a single skill or disposition, your students can practice the behaviors with which they most struggle.

4. Eat a Bit O’ Honey

To eat a Bit O’ Honey is to commit oneself to at least five minutes of lockjaw. Speech is impossible because the candy is unparalleled in its stickiness. As a beginning to student-driven instruction, this will stay the impulse to provide more instructions, to correct early mistakes and to solve problems for students. Bit O’ Honey will keep you quiet long enough to observe the first moves your students make, with a very visceral, very sweet reminder that they are the ones doing this work, not you. Your students will ask questions. Don’t be afraid to turn students’ questions back to them. If they ask “Where are the scissors?” it is fine to respond with the same question, asked with sincerity — but without even a hint of sarcasm. They’ll figure it out if the information and resources have been provided. This is easy to do when you know the answer or the question is very concrete (“The scissors are on the table by the door”) but harder when the question is more abstract (“What are we supposed to do again?”) or you don’t know the answer (“What should we do? The computer is down and we can’t get our presentation to load.”). The impulse to provide an answer never completely goes away. The wise educator recognizes that students answering the questions for themselves are what learning is all about.

If we truly believe that, as Danielson says, “The learner does the learning,” we have to recognize that the most important thing we can do as educators is get out of the way and let students struggle a bit. That struggle — theirs and our own — can be made easier if it happens in a supportive community and is guided by clarity of expectations around process, form and content with assessments aligned to that clarity.

Laura Thomas is the Director of Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal. She has been working in and with innovative schools since 1993, as a teacher, school coach and consultant. Laura’s expertise lies in system-wide change, building learning communities, and facilitative instruction. She is affi liated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, the School Reform Initiative, and was Co-President of New Hampshire Learning Forward and was named a Phi Delta Kappa International Emerging Leader in 2011. She is the author of Facilitating Authentic Learning (Corwin, October 2012) and currently writes for The Critical Skills Classroom blog.
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