How Do I Change and Why?

I regularly read blogs from a circle of educators that I follow on Twitter.  Though I haven’t actually met most of these people face to face, I feel as though I know them well.  Each time I read a new post, I have a good idea where their feelings and thoughts are coming from.  With that in mind, this post comes from an educator entering his 7th year.  Five previous years have been spent as an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting.  I became a connected educator about 3 years ago and I started blogging to keep a record of my own growth as an educator.  To be transparent, I’m also in the middle of Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz and many of Paul’s points inspired my motivation to write this post.  I’ve started the change discussed in this post and I wanted to write down my thoughts today.

Rewind 4-5 years ago and the phrase “student-centered instruction” or “learner-centered classroom” were buzzwords I probably would have used in a job interview, but that was the threshold of my experience with those phrases.  Looking back, my preservice training in college wasn’t bad, but I did not enter the profession in 2009 armed with the shifts in teaching that prepares a teacher to reach today’s students.  In fact, my student teaching and my first year as a full time teacher likely reflected the exact same teaching style that I received when I was in middle school back in 1997.  I want this post to highlight some steps any educator could take to begin to move away from a very teacher directed classroom dominated by rules, compliance, and students playing the game of school.  If you’re a teacher today you’ve definitely heard of the phrase “student/learner centered classrooms”.  You’ve likely heard your principal, instructional coach, professional development facilitator spout those terms about your school as if everyone in the building, regardless of experience, knows exactly how to initiate those changes in their own classroom.  Not to mention, the fear and anxiety some educators may feel every time someone stands and talks about a classroom that sounds nothing like their own.

I’m not going to outline these steps in any order, though I’m pretty adamant about the first one.  I realize that whatever order some of these appeared for me, may certainly not be the same order in which they appear for another educator.  The point is, read these points and consider which ones you can begin to initiate now and be brave enough to risk the change and see what happens.  If you haven’t gathered yet, I am a believer in this “new style” of teaching that describes teachers as more of a facilitator of learning than a driver of learning.  In fact, I spent much of the first week last year explaining to my 8th grade students exactly what my role would be.  You see, in a student’s eyes, a learner-centered classroom can sometimes lead a student to believe that the teacher does nothing.  My students’ evidence of teachers’ work is bound to:

  • the teacher towering over graded papers
  • the teacher standing up front and “teaching” for several minutes before assigning homework and retreating to his/her desk for the remainder of the period
  • the teacher rigidly supporting classroom rules by enacting consequences in the form of D-halls, pink slips, you name it
  • the teacher adhering to strict deadlines meaning he/she will not tolerate late work and zeroes will be given if such work is turned in late

Notice that all of those actions begin with “the teacher”.  In my students’ eyes, they typically evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher by the actions of the teacher.  This is understandable and I’m not trying to place guilt on any student, not at all.  The classrooms that most teachers today grew up in were dominated by the teacher.  The leading in the classroom was driven by the teacher.  Teachers took part in most of the action (24/7) while students were mostly passive.  The learner-centered classroom seeks to reverse most of the features of 20th century classrooms.  Below you’ll find some shifts that any educator can make to his/her classroom in an effort to transform it into one where students take risks, willingly lead, monitor their learning, and engage.

  • As I said above, I feel this first one needs to happen immediately.  It’s difficult to shift and transform yourself and your classroom if your level of feedback to students is suffocating under the level of grades you give.  Let me say that again: feedback needs to heavily outweigh the number of grades your students receive.  As a facilitator of student learning, this is one of your most important jobs and it’s one that your students, regardless of age, probably won’t recognize.  In fact, if you’re good at it, one could argue that the students shouldn’t recognize it.  I sometimes use the analogy of the rudder.  Passengers never see the rudder and rarely can even tell when it’s moving, but it impacts the direction of the ship constantly.  Your feedback can come in the form of a whisper in a student’s ear, sitting with a few students while they work, catching a student during lunch to talk to them about their work, a handwritten note, or a posttest conference.  There are nearly countless ways to offer feedback and perfecting any one of those ways is an art that today’s teachers need to practice.  If your grades outweigh the number of times you offer feedback, make this priority number one.
  • Information literacy is perhaps the most important skill our students need today.  The responsibility for this skill cannot be placed on any one teacher, grade level, or department.  21st century teachers are no longer masters of content tasked with unloading this knowledge into the brains of today’s students.  Many of our students come to school with content in their pockets.  The role of any teacher should be to design instruction that provides students opportunities to acquire content and create.  This is a huge task in my opinion, because depending on the grade level, it’s not uncommon for students to be more information literate than the teacher.  Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly many classrooms today where the teacher is doing more work than the students.  Here’s a start, consider the amount of work your students are doing and consider the work you are doing.
  • Do you have “A” students who breeze through your course without putting out much effort?  Do you find those students put forth minimal effort required to achieve their A?  Do you have struggling students that you find hard to motivate?  A learner centered classroom is not described by one pace fits all.  Rather, a learner centered classroom is driven by improvement.  Students aren’t bound to rigid deadlines and rewards aren’t determined by grades nor are punishments determined by compliance.  To place a priority on improvement and learning, the teacher needs to communicate flexibility in deadlines, learning styles, pacing, home lives, and relationships.  Teachers in learner centered classrooms are likely leveraging technology to aide them in managing this new flexibility, especially when it comes to learning.  Do you allow retakes on your summative assessments?  It’s tough to prioritize improvement over grades if you aren’t willing to allow retakes on your assessments.  What would a second or third opportunity to demonstrate learning do for that student that you find hard to motivate?  Incorporate relentless feedback during that cycle and I’m confident you’ll have a student willing to try to improve his/her score rather than one disappointed again with a low grade.  Accept that zeroes do nothing but let that student off the hook.  If your assignment was important enough to design than it should be important enough for students to complete.  Placing a priority on learning means zeroes have no place in your classroom.  Zeroes belong in a teacher directed classroom, not one that is learner centered.
  • Let your students lead.  Consider some menial tasks that you are carrying out during a typical week.  How many of those tasks could be completed by students?  Allow them to lead.  Paul Solarz writes in Learn Like A Pirate that allowing your students to interrupt the class at any time is one important aspect of a learner centered classroom.  Students will feel empowered when they understand their teacher is serious about allowing them to interrupt the classroom.  This obviously takes practice, flexibility, modeling, and constant feedback to direct appropriate interruptions and misdirect inappropriate interruptions.  Communicate early and often your system for allowing students to interrupt the class.
  • If the only evidence of learning you have from your students is a letter on top of a test, quiz, assignment, etc. than you are likely driving too much of the learning and your students are likely forgetting a high percentage of what you’ve worked hard to teach.  A learner centered classroom means students are given the tools and opportunities to not only regurgitate their learning, but apply and create with their newly acquired knowledge.  Evidence of learning in a learner centered classroom comes in a variety of forms.  2015 presents classrooms with a buffet of choices for teachers and students to incorporate in their classroom as means to demonstrate our learning.  Students today are creating avatars that demonstrate learning, they are creating social media accounts of historical figures using Fakebook , they are producing instructional videos and uploading them to a global audience, they are blogging and documenting their learning through text and pictures, and they are using Minecraft to visually represent the acquired skill.  These are just a few drops in the bucket of ways that students are doing and creating with their learning.

If you’re like me, you have probably thought at one time, or perhaps you’re thinking it now: “this all sounds good, but it just wouldn’t work for my students” or “I like these ideas, but I’d be the only one trying it and it’s just not worth it.”  Imagine with me for a minute, what type of students our schools would be sending out post-high school if all classrooms were learner centered.  Imagine what the work force would be like if all teachers made it a priority to design classrooms where students felt comfortable to lead, felt comfortable documenting their learning in a variety of ways, viewed content as something that is readily available, but viewed application of that content as a necessary skill to survive today.  Imagine what content and skills would be retained if students stopped playing the game of school and started valuing growth and improvement over a grade.  I have already imagined it and that’s what convinced me to step out and try it.

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