In a M.Ed course that I taught recently, one of the assignments was to design a learning experience for their own unique context. The teachers were asked to integrate the research, strategies and/ or examples that we had been exploring throughout the semester into their practice. Anyone who has taken or taught an education class knows this is not necessarily an innovative assignment. What struck me, however, was how hard it was for some of the teachers to complete.
Even though they liked the idea of creating opportunities for students to interact and have more voice and choice in their own learning, many were apprehensive about the logistics, they questioned what students would actually learn, and were anxious about taking extra time to teach something the pacing guides. And for some, they acknowledged that this type of planning was new to them– they had only worked in an era of teaching where they simply followed the curriculum guides or used the textbook.
After 7 weeks of synthesizing research, working through new ideas, wrestling with existing norms in diverse contexts each of the teachers were empowered to try something new in their classrooms. There was a wide range of implementation where some taught one lesson and others were able to implement larger projects depending on their comfort level and the opportunity to take some calculated risks.
As I worked with each of the teachers to figure out a way to try something new, I was encouraged by what they had planned and was eager to see the impact with students. What I didn’t anticipate was that, with the exception of 1 person in the class, each teacher indicated how their students had “exceeded their expectations.” This teachers reflection summarizes the group ‘s experiences:
Student work was amazing to say the least! I was sincerely impressed with the amount of time and effort students put into their projects. We were restricted with time and only allowed to do the projects at the end of the day due to Smarter Balanced state testing but students wanted to work on their projects all other times of the day. It was neat to see the desire for students to want to discover more about this project. It seems as if they were driven by an unknown force, but I knew it was the power of agency. They loved being in control of their learning.
Although many of the teachers initially worried about the “system” and what “they” might think, they pushed the boundaries of their own comfort zones. They found that many of those limitations that they had worried about were often insignificant. By taking a risk and trying out some new strategies, another teacher reflects on how she created the experiences and empowered her students.
Although I had faith that my students would produce quality work for this assignment, what they produced exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I should not have been surprised; for when you give students a sense of ownership and choice over their learning the creativity this unleashes often leads to great results. The results of this assignment make me want to develop similar projects in the future.
These teachers were empowered as designers and saw great results from their students but they also were reminded of the joy in their own teaching and learning. What this highlighted for me is that when teachers focus on what’s best for the learners in their classroom and trust themselves, their students can and will exceed expectations.