When I was in my teacher preparation program, I remember being taught to complete extensive lesson plans to ensure I was prepared to engage students in learning the specified content. I was expected to know how to differentiate for diverse needs of students. I thoughtfully planned modifications for students with special needs and English language learners. I differentiated for those who needed remediation, those who met the standard and those that needed extension activities. Sometimes my lessons for 45 minutes were up to 5 pages long and they very clearly aligned to much of the theory about teaching and learning. I had planned what I was going to say and what they were going to do and say.
Now some of you might be thinking, this sounds great. In a lot of respects, this is considered best practice and what many teachers are still trained to do but the problem is the students were just participants in my lessons learning to “do school” (some better than others). In my efforts to teach the content that I had determined necessary based on pacing guides and standards, I often left little space in my tightly crafted lessons plans for their questions, their interests or for learning and creation beyond what I knew.
I have been thinking a lot about the lesson plans and some of the “best practices” and how they translate (or don’t) to powerful learning experiences. I wonder, to make learning more personal and authentic, what if teachers did less, not more? I am not arguing to wing it and just see what happens- that rarely goes well. I am suggesting, however, that instead of teachers doing all the work to plan overly structured lessons and deliver the content, we spend more time understanding the learners and helping them understand what the learning goal is, where they are in relationship to the desired learning target and how they can close the gap through more personal learning experiences.
William Yeats says that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” When we can connect learners to ideas and questions that they passionate and motivated to solve, it is amazing to see what is possible, but too often we prepare teachers to fill the pail rather than light the fire. What if the key practices that we learn in teacher preparations programs that are reinforced in our evaluations and professional learning that characterize “good teaching” are preventing us from the type of learning that is possible in classrooms today?
From Engagement to Empowerment
Many teachers are taught (and evaluated) on student engagement as measured by how many students are actively participating. We want to look around the room and make sure everyone’s eyes on the teacher, the students are listening intently. We expect to see students raise their hands and wait to be called on. As teachers, we learn to create and deliver lessons that engage students with hooks and fun activities to connect them with the content we want them to learn. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in The Innovator’s Mindset George Couros pushed me to think beyond engagement to empowerment,
If engagement is the ceiling- the highest bar- then we may be missing point. Think about it: Would you rather hear about changing the world, or do you want the opportunity to do so? A story about a world changer might engage us, but becoming world-changers changes us. So the question for you as a professional educator is: If you had to choose between compliant, engaged, or empowered, which word would you choose to define your students?
From Standardization to Personalization
I was talking to a teacher about how he wanted to create more authentic learning experiences for his students but he couldn’t imagine how he could do this given the current expectations of him. He was wondering how he could possibly plan to “personalize” for every student. If you think about lesson plans in a traditional sense yes, it is overwhelming, if not completely impossible for a teacher to plan personalized learning experiences for each student. In the Myth of Average, Todd Rose points out that “in spite of our understanding that no two people are the same, we have set up a system that prioritizes and demands over structured lessons for every student to meet the same objective at the same time in the year regardless of the individual’s unique strengths, interests, or questions to be answered.
A conversation I had with a 1st grader highlighted this challenge. He asked, “Why do I have to learn about butterflies? I wanted to know more about what they were learning and after probing a little bit more, he told me that they had glued some parts of the butterfly on paper and colored a picture. There was a display on the back wall of 27 similar butterflies that each student made. Curiously, I asked, What do you want to learn about?” He said, “chickens.” He then offered, “I already know about butterflies.”
His comments had stuck with me all week and were starkly contrasted with a classroom I visited were 1st graders were recording videos in pairs to narrate their informational writing. I asked a student what she was writing about and she explained to me what she was learning about turtles and informed me that some of her friends were writing about Helen Keller, others about owls and continued to list a variety of other topics. The content was based on what the students wanted to learn but the each of them, regardless of their chosen topic, were learning and practicing the skills to be better writers, communicators, and collaborators. The teachers had taught them the skills that they were using to research on their ipads, organize information and share what they were learning. The students were at different stages of the writing process, teaching and learning from one another and beyond excited to share what they were writing. Beyond writing for the teachers as the only audience, they made videos to communicate what they learned about their topic of choice with friends, parents and anyone else who wanted to learn from them.
With access to an abundance of resources and experts to learn in ways that extend beyond the individual teacher and their expertise, we have opportunities to create more personal learning experiences that can allow students to develop the skills and apply them in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.
From Scaffolds to Agency
I was once told for every class you should spend twice as much time planning and the saying goes if you don’t if you fail to plan you plan to fail. Now I believe it’s important to plan and necessary to scaffold sometimes but I also wonder, as we guide the learners each step of the way, how often do the structures and scaffolds that are put in place actually inhibit the learning process? When the teacher bears the cognitive load and is the one who finds the resources and plans the sequence, the learners are coaxed along in the process to move down a prescribed path.
If you think of the examples above about the butterfly unit the teacher was the one who picked out the books, created the worksheets for students to fill in, planned to scaffold for different achievement levels and students passively respond to the activities. Yet in the second class, the teacher had set up the process for students to learn and taught the students the skills but they owned the learning and had autonomy and purpose throughout the process. The important thing here is the choice and the purpose naturally allows for the learners to move at their own pace and path, allowing for learners to seek support based on their own needs from peers, online resources, and the teacher. Learner agency is about moving students from passively responding to acting with purpose to reach a desired goal or outcome.
From Skills to Application
A common approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment is often referred to as ‘standards-based’. According to the Glossary for Education Reform, standards-based grading is defined as:
“systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating understanding or mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In a school that uses standards-based approaches to educating students, learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the learning expectations described in the standards.”
We all have a finite amount of resources and are accountable to meet specific objectives within a given period of time. Knowledge and skills are foundational and need to be taught. Yet, there is a need to balance the foundational skills that we want all students to attain while allowing for authentic application of those skills. In the standards-based paradigm, our learning goals are primarily the standards or subsets of standards. This is a good start but as many employers, vision statements, and good common sense allude to, there is more to developing productive and empowered citizens than just mastering isolated standards. We need to prioritize learning experiences that not only develop knowledge but attend to the skills, interactions, and mindsets that we know are critical for students to develop to be successful in our evolving world.
From classroom management to classroom community
Classroom management is a staple of any teacher education and or induction program and seen as a foundation of good teaching. This typically means preparing teachers to manage classrooms through a multitude of strategies to ensure they know how to maintain control of a classroom. For example, a common practice is to use public management displays to identify who is following the rules as a way to motivate students to choose the appropriate behavior. I believe that we need to have rules and procedures that facilitate productive learning environments but to create learning environments where students feel valued and a sense of ownership, we must move beyond management to creating learning environments that foster a community of empowered learners.
I used to spend the first days of school learning about my students and establishing the classroom community. Rather than going over rules and the syllabus, we would talk about how we wanted to be treated, how we liked to learn, and what we wanted our classrooms environment to be like. I taught middle school and had multiple classes so each class had their own norms and community guidelines that we used. Each class made their own poster and ensured students had ownership and felt like they were a contributing member of the community. They were usually rooted in the same ideas but reflected the personality of each class.
Of course we don’t want to leave children behind or provide experiences in school that don’t prepare them to be successful in life, college, and careers but the reality is that we are leaving kids behind, we are proving experiences in school that are irrelevant to their lives and don’t equip them with the skills that they need to be learners not just consumers.
Experimenting or Evolving?
I know for many it can be daunting to think about redesigning classroom experiences based on the student and teacher interests, rather than a set curriculum that ensures everyone gets the same thing. One experienced teacher and administrator told me it wasn’t fair to kids to experiment on students and that we needed to make sure the curriculum was vetted prior to rolling it out in classrooms to avoid messing it up or “failing students.” This fear is prevalent in education and too often we end up sticking with what we have always done because it is safe and if we are honest is safe because managing the status quo rarely gets us in trouble. But it we are really focused on what’s best for kids and our goal is to ensure success in work, life, and citizenship, we need to create a system that is more nimble and allows for teachers to create learning experiences that reflect of the context and the resources to best meet the needs of learners. This is not experimenting but being responsive and what is critical to creating schools that continually evolve to meet the demands of the changing world.