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The Four Components of Student-Driven Instruction

All learners deserve the opportunity to own their learning. They take this ownership when they have input into the what or the how of instruction. The more choice you offer students, the more they will embrace the learning. With technology integration, we no longer need to rely on the teacher as the sole expert in the classroom. Now we can access experts around the world, including those sitting in the next desk over.

Student-driven classrooms empower students to synthesize research to address authentic tasks. Mrs. V does a great job fostering research and information fluency skills with her AP Government class. One recent project involved students using resources and technology to explore the different types of campaign ads. They researched various campaign ads, identified key details of each type, and then worked with peers to create a recorded ad that either attacked the opponent or flattered their chosen candidate. In addition to understanding campaign ads, they had to have a working knowledge of their candidate and his/her opponents.

In student-driven classrooms, the students use appropriate digital tools to collaborate with peers and experts regardless of physical location in meaningful and purposeful communication. Mrs. S often designs challenges that promote collaboration within and beyond her classroom to address authentic tasks. In a recent visit, I saw her introduce the newest student-led projects. The ninth-grade students chose which groups they would work in and assigned roles for each student within their group. Students will access assignment information within Blackboard. They will communicate with Mrs. S and each other via email, texting apps, Blackboard, and Google Drive for communication and collaboration throughout the project. Mrs. S introduced a GANTT sheet and how to use it for time management and accountability. She also set midpoint conferences where every student meets with her to show work that they have completed to date. Students are driving the communication efforts by choosing the appropriate digital tools to complete all aspects of the project, while also using the group norms they established within their groups.

In student-driven classrooms, questioning techniques and critical thinking strategies are enhanced as students work to solve problems in authentic tasks. Ms. W works with eighth-grade students in an alternative school. Some would argue that she has an even bigger challenge in engaging students in relevant learning. She gladly accepts that challenge and works diligently to provide her students with authentic learning opportunities. Recently, her students learned about Hurricane Katrina through video, first-hand accounts, and research. They also discovered that New Orleans is at risk for flooding again. They used that information to create a solution for how to prevent mass chaos/death again and created presentations using Google Slides to share with the class. They synthesized their research to provide three solutions that would help prevent the damage done during Katrina. This is a real-life problem that the students are working to solve.

Creativity and innovation are fostered in student-driven rooms because students get to develop original ideas and create products by applying critical thinking, research methods, communication tools, and collaborative processes. One example of this comes from Mrs. M’s English 3 class. Students were given a list of topics referring to the Great Depression and its impact on America during the 1930s. Each student chose one topic to research and then created an original digital project using: Prezi, Word or Publisher (brochure), LucidPress, Posterini, MakeBeliefsComix, or a video app. Mrs. M strives to introduce students to new creation platforms to increase their comfort levels as they build their repertoires. At the same time, she empowers them to find other digital creation tools that she has yet to discover.
All of these experiences, designed by the teachers and those that happen organically, move students to engage at a deeper level and allow for real learning to occur.

Solving Real-World Problems in High School Engineering


I grew up in a small town. I’m raising my children in that same small town (I know. Sounds like a John Mellencamp song). While I love small towns for many reasons, I do get a bit envious of the learning opportunities that bigger districts can provide. One of my favorite districts to work with is Crowley ISD in Crowley, Texas. They have a CTE center there that boasts of some of the best teachers I’ve ever met. For many of them, teaching is a second career after leaving the military, law enforcement, or some aspect of the business world. I’ve written about some of them in the past. I got to hang out with them again this week, and they brought their A game just like they always do.

The class I observed taught by Mr. P was Principles of Engineering. When I visited, the students were already a week into their projects, and on day four of the collaborative design phase. Their purpose of the project was to design, create, test, and evaluate a compound machine while collaborating effectively with others in a design team. I love this sentence from the lesson plan Mr. P shared with me prior to my visit, “There is no one lesson or objective today as students will be directing me to assist with whatever “step” they have achieved.” Doesn’t that statement get right to the heart of student-driven learning? The students were all designing, building a model of, and then completing a CAD of a machine that could remove the hardtop cover of a Jeep. They had an authentic problem to solve. Before my visit, the students had already sketched their designs on grid paper. They were all in the model-building phase, choosing from a variety of materials (i.e. Fischer Technik, Legos, or VEX components). While circulating among groups, Mr. P saw a common issue that needed to be addressed. He was able to pull them back together as a whole class to demonstrate how to draw a gear on Autodesk CAD design software. The students would watch him draw a step, and then they would do the same on their own computers. This was a step they would all be taking next in their projects as they all incorporated some type of gear into their machines.

At the conclusion of the project, students will write a reflection piece about themselves, as well as evaluate their peers as part of the collaboration process. The groups will vote on the best design to then build to scale and test on a real Jeep. Doesn’t get more real-world than this, right? 

If you like these practical examples of real teachers facilitating student-driven learning, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more stories from Crowley ISD soon.

Failing Spectacularly

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I was listening to the radio today and they were interviewing Andy Grammer.  The DJ asked what advice he’d’ have for musicians that haven’t “made it” yet.  He said, “Fail spectacularly.”  He went on to say that you can be an enormous success, or you can be an enormous failure, but if you are just riding the middle ground, then you are going nowhere.  That middle ground is also known as the comfort zone.

Do we encourage students to not only aim, but draw the bow with all their might?  Do we expect them to fail spectacularly?  Or do we reinforce the comfort of the middle ground?  If students never take a risk, they might not ever truly learn.


Empowered by Reciprocal Learning – Student Engagement Series

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I recently had coffee with a good teacher friend.  He was telling me that their district is moving from iPads to Chromebooks for next school year.  Some of the other teachers were rejoicing because then the students “wouldn’t be playing games during class.”  He pointed out to them that kids can, in fact, still play games on Chromebooks and the reply was “but they aren’t fun games.”  He inwardly sighed and was thinking what most good teachers would think – this is a classroom management issue, not a device problem.  So, how do we make sure students are engaged in the classroom?

There has been much research to show that students (or anyone, for that matter) learn more when they have to teach someone else.  I recently came across an article that takes it a step further, they learn more when they think they will need to teach someone at some point.  Students are able to analyze, define, create, and evaluate information, skills, and concepts when they are actually doing something in the learning process.  Add to active learning environments, a way to share the learning with an authentic audience, and the engagement (and bonus: the learning!) skyrockets.

I’ve written posts before about the importance of authentic learning, and presenting the learning to authentic audiences.  If students know they are going to be demonstrating their learning in front of experts in the field, their peers, and/or other adults (outside of the classroom teacher), they take more time to put forth their best effort.  It goes a step further if they are sharing their work, globally, via some type of digital avenue.

Questions we need to be asking: How do we increase the likelihood of student engagement?  Make sure you are not lecturing from the front of the classroom (or worse, while sitting down at your desk for the entire period – kill me now…).  Would you want to learn in your own classroom?  How much interaction are the students having with one another, and with people outside of the classroom? Are the students moving around and driving their own learning trajectories during class?  How are they showing their learning?  To whom are they teaching?

“Teaching” someone else can be as simple as having them turn and tell a partner what they just learned.  This shouldn’t be the norm, but is a great method to get students thinking about their learning in a deeper manner.  They can also blog about what they just learned.  There are very simple solutions, and there are much deeper opportunities, as well.  Each class, each lesson, and each student in unique – engage them accordingly.

Please share some awesome ways you’ve seen students teach others to enhance their own learning experiences.


Empowered By Choice – Student Engagement Series

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Today I had the privilege of sitting in on five different lessons.  My purpose was to observe teachers who are in the process of integrating technology into their curriculum.  What I love to pay attention to, during these times, is the level of student engagement.  My favorite lesson was the last of the day in a Fire class at the Career and Technical Education Center.  These students are in their fifth week of a project-based learning (PBL) unit on the risks firefighters face in their professions.  The students are all upperclassmen, and all chose this class as an elective.  They are working with a partner, and some of the problems they have been researching and trying to solve, involve depression/suicide rates, PTSD, and increased risk of developing colon cancer among firefighters.  Today they began the class in an online discussion forum, then they reviewed the student-created rubric for the project, the presentation dates, and then work time.  This was a 90-minute class, and the best part was that these boys (yes – all boys!) were engaged and actively working the entire period.  The reason? They chose to be in this class, they chose  their partners, they chose the problem they wanted to research, and they even chose what they wanted to be on their evaluation rubric.  These are students who look forward to coming to class each day.  Their voices are being heard, and they are driving their own learning.  It’s a beautiful thing.