Teaching Opinion

Give Students Power in Their Learning Process

By Starr Sackstein — April 21, 2016 3 min read
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What are we so afraid of?

In my early career, I was so fearful that I wasn’t going to be able to teach my students well.

I controlled everything, making it extremely unsavory for students to do anything but the exact things I spelled out for them.

As a matter of fact, I was so detailed in my expectations that I ultimately made it simple for cheating and for them to check out.

Although this was easy for me, it had the opposite of the desired effect. Students weren’t learning really at all unless they were the type who took initiative on their own and did what they wanted.

Since most of them were more focused on the grade, I made the game easier, making the rules clear and the expectations singular.

Boy, did I hinder growth and learning!

Of course, back then I was emulating what made me successful in school and therefore tried to make all of my students do what I wanted at the expense of their own creativity and understanding. Nothing was transferring or connecting. I didn’t do it on purpose, I just didn’t know any better.

Because I was so desperate to be a good teacher and have all my students pass, I sacrificed actual learning and real student engagement for the look of those things.

Now, I know that if students are really going to learn, they need to be responsible and accountable for how and what they are learning. The more empowered they are, the more likely they are to develop transferable skills that will make them college and career ready.

It starts with the premise that I (the teacher) don’t have all the answers. I’m one person in the community of learners who knows how to do things the way I know. But since there are 34 other learners in the space who approach each challenge with a different context and perspective, we can have a greater number of possible solutions if we work together to pool the resources.

So how can we get students to take control of their learning?

Consider the following:

  • Ask them how they like to learn -a conversation about the ways they learn best can be an optimal chance to really explore how well you are meeting student needs and offer more choice afterward.
  • Depending on the age of the students it may be appropriate to start with giving choices between a few things and allowing them to pick. The older they get, the more open with either more options or allowing them to come up with what their own suggestions.
  • Get students involved in the planning. If synthesis and creation are at the top of Bloom’s, why not teach students how we plan lessons and ask them to help. Say, “this is what we need to accomplish, how best can we do that?”
  • Allow students to show what they know in a way that makes sense for them
  • Use portfolios as a means for assessment, so students can show what they know more regularly
  • Teach students to reflect and self-assess and get them involved in the “grading” process. Their voices matter, so listen when they share what they know. Our assessments may not be the best means of allowing students to show what they know.
  • Offer student led lunch and learns so that you can learn along side students when it comes to technology.
  • Allow students to choose the tools they use when they’re working; try not to dictate how they work but rather trust that they can choose correctly.
  • Sometimes you will have to let them fail when they make these choices, but this too will be an opportunity for learning. Support them if they fall.
  • Be available for help, but let them come to you. Promote an atmosphere where autonomy is prized but help is valued as well and self-awareness of the need for help is also a skill that is desirable.
  • Model failing forward and share the experiences with students as they learn to be more accountable for their own learning.

Students will love the idea of being in charge of their learning for the most part, but they may not be ready to do it on their own. So you will need to scaffold the experience until they can do it successfully by themselves. Be aware that you may encounter students who aren’t interested in these kinds of freedoms. Often times, honor students want to be told what to do so they know how to get the grade they want. If time is spent de-emphasizing the importance of grades, this can start to shift as well.

How do you get kids involved in their learning in your classes? Please share and join #ASCDtopics this week on Twitter to get your voice heard.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.