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Letting Students Be in Charge of Their Learning

Letting Students Be in Charge of Their Learning

9 April, 2016

Teachers must embrace their students’ capacity to learn through leading when given the chance.

Allowing students take charge of how they learn leads to high involvement, in-depth inquiry, and quality work.

Student-Developed Products Based on Learning Targets

We invest the most in tasks that we get to choose. What if the learning outcome is evaluating counterarguments and creating one for a community purpose? Students could create a 10- to 20-minute documentary, podcast commentary, or staged debate on a social media platform. Each task needs research analysis of different viewpoints by authors and social media commentators. Students develop a well-reasoned script that goes through several revisions before the final production.

There are different apps and tools that students can use to demonstrate understanding of concepts in any subject. How?

Ask the students. Provide the result and charge them with the challenge to use any available tools via high and low tech.

Start small. Give students three options. The first two choices are teacher-structured with the requirements and methods laid out. Include one or two wildcard elements that students have a voice in shaping. As the third choice, offer a blank check, challenging students to design the task. Give them the learning targets that they must demonstrate. They propose a plan, and you determine if it’s acceptable.

Student-Developed Rubrics

Rubrics are an important tool for formative assessment. First and foremost, rubrics give information to students and teachers about how learning is progressing. It’s an ongoing coaching tool for self-assessment, peer coaching, and teacher support of the quality of work and the areas for growth.

Students need understanding of the rubric for its formative assessment power to be realized, and there lies the challenge. At best, understanding a teacher-created rubric needs repeated review over time before “most” students understand it at a proficient level. It’s the same as when a teacher teaches a unit for the first time using lesson plans written by another teacher — it’s possible, and the person will enhance over time. Yet with rubrics, how much time do teachers and students have?

Teachers can save time by involving students in designing the rubric. When students craft the descriptors, they develop a common understanding of what quality learning looks like. The best part is that, typically, students establish rigorous expectations that they would not buy into if the teacher gave them the same document. It may take a class 20-40 minutes to co-develop high-quality expectations that the students design, understand, and agree to finish. That’s time well spent.

Student-Led Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences are about the adults discussing the student’s progress without her being part of the conversation. The student might be present, but she only gets to respond to topics set by the adults. The result is that the adults are doing the heavy lifting while the student daydreams about what she’ll be doing when the meeting is over.

Student-led conferences are excellent chances for students to explore and reflect on their learning journey. When they facilitate the conversation with parents or guardians, the rich benefits are in the students’ preparations prior to the meeting. They review products that show their growth during the marking period. They analyze how the work relates with their grades or standards-based competencies and evaluate next steps for continued growth.

Set Students Free to Learn With You

Innovation Days at a high school is an example where students are encouraged to construct their learning and establish academic criteria. This is how it was done:

The students spent two days designing and developing ideas that fueled their passions. One group of students played percussion instruments for hours, experimenting with beats and sounds. Only one of them used a standard drum kit. The rest played with drumsticks on various surfaces. In a science room, students built motorized vehicles, while a student in another room attempted to explain the abstract science concepts behind the chapter that she was writing. Teachers coached or provided the muscle that students requested to attain their vision.

On the second day, after some revision time, students presented their works to the school community.

When teachers trust students to lead their learning by giving more open-ended chances that challenge them to find their way, students will delve deeper into content and set their expectations higher than what is required.