Teaching Opinion

Teachers, See Learning as Students Do

By Starr Sackstein — March 05, 2019 4 min read
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At a conference I attended recently, my elbow partner observed that I put students in front of every decision I make as an educator, that I really see the learning through their perspectives.

The compliment came unprompted and caught me off-guard as I had never thought about it in that way.

But the more I considered it, the more I realized she is right. As a teacher, every choice I made I heard the voices of my students in my head. Whether I spent time in class gathering their ideas so much that it became embedded in my thought process or the amount of time I spent in conferences with them about their learning, I had an innate sense of what they needed.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

Early in my career, all of the decisions I made came from what I thought students needed and expected through my own lens as a learner, even though I was an atypical learner for sure (I think I still am in a lot of ways). This did not help me grow as an educator, and I’m fairly certain it didn’t help my students much, either.

The one thing I had going for me back then was that I was young and I cared, but I still had so much to learn in terms of actual teaching.

Learning can be a magical experience or it can be tragic. It is our job as educators to sprinkle fairy dust and create the circumstances that engage and excite learners regardless of the content and/or skills we are teaching. It helps if we do that with them.

Since we keep getting older, and it is likely that our personal learning experiences did not happen the same way current kids need, we must enlist those whose voices matter most in this experience now, those of the kids we are teaching.

Here are some ways we can learn to see through our students’ eyes as learners:

  • Ask. It seems simple, but it is an often overlooked method of getting really direct answers. Depending on the age of the students you teach, consider asking them how they learn best in a way they would understand. No one says we can’t teach a lesson about learning modalities and then ask them to describe how they like to learn and about what they feel inspired by.
  • Observe. Watch students in your classes and, if possible, in the classes of other teachers. It doesn’t hurt to see them in other environments as well: gym, recess, lunch, afternoon activities, just hanging out in the hallway with their friends. What do you notice? What do they wear? What do they do? What do you wonder?
  • Take action. Beyond watching and noticing, we have to get involved. Once we see a pattern, why not engage in a conversation with students one on one? Ask the guidance counselors about them. If you see something, say something; don’t let changes go unnoticed.
  • Co-create with students. Create opportunities in classrooms where student voice and choice are involved. When designing a project, allow students to choose what and how they work. If there is a group or pair assignment and it is appropriate, let them choose. Don’t assume the students can’t help to design a task and/or success criteria. If we are transparent about the what, why, and how of learning, they will know what they need, and then we just have to listen.
  • Engage students in a meaningful feedback loop. Throughout the learning experiences, ask students for feedback. How are you doing? What do they like and why? What don’t they like and why? How could you do it better? If we ask for the feedback, we must acknowledge it, try to use it, and give credit when needed. This can be done in a number of different ways like Google docs, surveys, conferences, quick checks, etc.
  • Never underestimate what students know and can do. Students are far more insightful than we often give them credit for. If we assume they can and put scaffolds in place where needed, students will rise to our expectations and even exceed them. We just need to provide them with the vocabulary and the tools and then let them be creative. Sometimes we feel like we need to hover in order to help kids learn like we need to be on top of them, but that is simply not the case. We need to create the environment and circumstances where learning can happen and then we need to let them try.
  • Provide choice. In everything that we do, students should have a say. Creating a menu of things to do in class, while exposing them to true project-based learning, gives them the option to see how they feel that day and make choices about how and what they learn. For example, in my journalism classes, there was a student-generated menu/list of learning they could do in any given class period. Some choices were research for an article, write, revise, draw, get photographs, interview, read, go onto a journalism app that allowed them to practice different skills, etc. We can do things like this in every class.

The better we get to know our students, the more we will hear their voices in our decisionmaking. Too often, we take risks ourselves, only letting some of the rope out for students to be more autonomous, but because we don’t know what to do with ourselves while that is happening, we can sabotage perfectly good learning experiences. While students are working independently, teachers have a unique opportunity to work with individual students or small groups of students and provide more directed instruction as needed.

Really the best way to get into the heads of our students is to build relationships with them. The better we know our kids, the better we can help and understand them. Once we know them, I mean, really know them, we can make informed decisions that will help them grow as learners.

How do you ensure the best lessons for the learners in your room? Please share

*Photo made with pablo.com

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.