One of the things I get to do in my consulting work is to play a coaching role with teachers throughout the year. This week I was in classrooms observing teachers who were 1:1 with Chromebooks. Some lessons were okay. Some were good, and others were fantastic. A second grade teacher was having her students work in pairs to research famous people that they would then write biographies about. These students were using books as their primary research resources, and then creating timelines on shared Google Drawings. They had to find 7-9 important events (with dates) that helped answer the essential question surrounding this person’s fame. The students were engaged, focused and excited to be working on the project.
Toward the end of my time, I had a few minutes to chat with the teacher about her instructional practices. She told me other ways she had been integrating technology into her classroom, and I was excited to hear some very innovative things going on there. She was telling me all the ways she uses Google Drawing with her class. I mentioned that I think it might be the most underutilized app in the GAFE library because it is so versatile. She looked a little sheepish and replied, “I feel guilty for using it so often. I feel like I’m supposed to be always looking for new resources and tools.” I stopped her right there and shared my thoughts on the subject. Innovation does not happen because every student has a digital device in your classroom. Innovation does not happen because you introduce a new web tool every week to your students. Just like I didn’t see “wow” lessons in every classroom, you won’t get “wow” results just because you use some kind of technology. It’s the teacher that makes innovative instruction happen – not the tool, not the device, not the website. Good teaching is still good teaching. It’s all in how the available resources are utilized. I’m more impressed seeing Google Drawing being used to modify instruction than to see numerous other web tools used as substitutions for paper/pencil activities.
I believe every person should be a constant learner. I am always excited to hear about a new resource and try it out for myself. I am completely energized by sharing these new finding with other people. But I’m equally enthusiastic to share “old” resources and the ways I enjoy using them, because when it comes down to it, innovation is most definitely not about the tool.
How many students get excited about writing essays or reports? How many students can’t wait to crack open those textbooks each day (or log onto digital textbooks because it’s basically the same thing)? How many students look forward to entering your class each day? I’m hoping that last question is indicative of the first two. So how do teachers ensure student engagement?
The quick answer is student-directed learning. Engaged students feel like they are important members of the class community. They take ownership of their own learning when they get to direct their own learning. Are they allowed some choice in the topics they study? Are they encouraged to pursue their own learning style for new knowledge and skill attainment? Are students able to access materials at their level for better comprehension and synthesis? Do they get to choose their preferred mode of demonstrating learning to the teacher?
These are not pipe dreams. I’ve done them and watched other teachers facilitate classes that are student-directed. Unfortunately, they are still the exception in most places.
By “student-directed” I don’t mean a free-for-all. There are structures in place, expectations are communicated, and goals created and met. It can be scary for the teacher to give up that control that comes from teacher-centered instruction. The rewards, however, are more than worth the risk. Most students aren’t accustomed to this type of classroom instruction, either, so usually a gradual release process is the best implementation plan.
Some ways to move into student-directed learning that is differentiated and personalized:
- Genius Hour
- Project-Based Learning
- Good learning management systems can help, such as
- Flipped Instruction
- Standards-based grading practices
I am very passionate about personalized learning and love to talk about/teach/train about all of the above and more. Please reach out if you want to discuss how to implement a student-directed environment in your own classroom, school, or district. You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and email.
This can (and should) be attained at any grade level, K-higher ed. If you’re already teaching in this type of classroom, I’d love to hear your success stories. Freedom and empowerment lead to student engagement, which leads to true learning.
I had the privilege of working with a very talented teacher this week in Crowley, TX. He teaches Computer Technology, Computer Maintenance, and Futures in STEM at the district’s career and technical high school. One of his goals this semester was to implement a Genius Hour time for his students. It was a huge success. He used Google Forms for the students to self-assess. He has already had many asking when the next project could begin (with several planning on furthering the work they started earlier). When I was talking about the experience with him, his response to me was, “Wouldn’t it be great if every day at school could be like Genius Hour?”
It would be great, and I honestly believe it could work. Students would still be held accountable for their learning. Teachers could still ensure that the state standards and curriculum were being learned. The difference is that our students would be utilizing critical and creative thinking skills like never before. They would be highly engaged since they chose the subject matter. They would be working on real-world application to the knowledge, skills, and concepts they acquire during their study time. Teachers would be available to teach personalized minilessons in the moment. Students would see that taking risks is not only accepted but encouraged as a way to learn and grow. How much of that takes place in a teacher-centered classroom? It’s the freedom for experimentation that leads students to take ownership over their own learning.
“When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, people will enjoy their work.” Ed Catmull
I was recently asked how I inspire creativity in others. I firmly believe that everyone is born with creative spirits. the sad part is that along the way most of us lose it. Or, more likely, misplace it. I remember years ago during the big scrapbooking rage telling a friend at a scrapbooking party that I just wasn’t creative. She was quick to point out how untrue that was. I was an elementary teacher – you have to be creative for that! And not to brag (haha), but my second-graders thought I was pretty much the best artist and singer they’d ever met. (Ahhhh to be the rockstar of your own classroom.) I love experimenting with recipes in the kitchen, and different vegetables in the garden. I just didn’t see any of that as “being creative”. I thought that term was reserved for artists and writers. The other crazy part is that I love to “do art”. I like creating things with my hands…paintings, sculptures…I’m just not good at it. But just like creating a new recipe, there is something immensely satisfying and empowering from creating something. As I’ve gotten older (I kind of hate that phrase because only old people use it – ugh- and I refuse to be old) I’ve discovered the freedom in giving myself permission to travel those paths to the unknown. I started my own company. I left the security of working in a school system to be a full-time educational consultant. And, guess what…I love it. I have the best job ever. For me. I get to be creative in my work every day. I get to help teachers and administrators find easier, better, more efficient ways to do their jobs. The best part of it is that I’m impacting the lives of hundreds of students through it all. I would have never discovered this creative outlet had I not taken a risk.
So how do I inspire creativity? I empower people I work with and encourage them to free themselves from preconceived notions – to be risk-takers. Through empowerment and freedom comes true creativity.
How often do we allow our students to fail and see it as a good thing? How often do we let ourselves have that same freedom? It is through failed ideas, trials, and projects that we become stronger learners. Our ideas are clarified. Our trials move to the next phase. Our projects are improved. So why does “failure” contain such a negative connotation? How can we promote, and embrace a growth mindset to see that what Ed Catmull wrote is true? “Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration.”
Personally, I want to keep learning every day. Will I get it right on the first time, every time? Of course not. Will I be frustrated with myself at times because of this? Probably. But that’s not the end. I’m going to explore and learn through my failures. And hopefully, I can teach my own children to do the same.
I recently read somewhere that people can listen with understanding for 90 minutes, listen for retention for 20 minutes, but they need to be actively involved every 8 minutes. Now if you are an elementary teacher, then your kids are, most likely (hopefully!), actively involved every 8 minutes anyway. If you are a student-directed secondary teacher, then I would say your students probably are, as well. But for a moment, let’s think about teachers who still prefer to lecture for a whole class period. What are the students actually learning? I’m not asking what they can recall regarding basic facts that have been drilled into them. What are they understanding and retaining that will transfer into other parts of their lives?
I love talking about authentic learning. If you are still assessing information that can be easily googled online, then your methods are in desperate need of an update. If you employ instructional and assessment methods that offer student choice, differentiate for personalized learning, and require higher levels of thinking, then you are right on target for authentic (and long-lasting) learning experiences! Some great ways to do this are through project-based learning, reader’s and writer’s workshop, and genius hour projects. I’ve linked some great websites for further information about these powerful learning frameworks. I have worked with an extensive number of teachers, and have never met a single one who regretted facilitating one of these opportunities in their own classrooms. On the contrary, the student engagement, growth, and achievement are usually well beyond the teacher’s initial expectations. In addition to these enormous benefits, students learn to collaborate with peers, consult experts in the field, and present their findings to relevant audiences. These are real-world skills that are necessary for our students to be ready for college and careers.
What are some ways you ensure authentic learning occurs in your classrooms? If you are an administrator or professional development coordinator, how do you ensure this happens with your teachers? They deserve to have authentic learning experiences, as well. As I mentioned above, this is one of my favorite topics to discuss. I’m always looking to increase my learning, as well. I look forward to engaging with you via the comment section here, through LinkedIn, Twitter, or my email address. Thanks!