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Student-Designed Learning in the Institutional Classroom

My first classroom job was as a high school business teacher. The course was an elective for students, and on our first day together, I asked why they had chosen to take the class.

I want to make money.
I want to be in business.
I want to be successful in my life.

I led these students through a textbook-based program designed to meet the government-mandated learning goals, through units like Marketing and Human Resources. I began to recognize that while students were being prepared for certain segments of the job market, there was almost no opportunity to develop their personal management skills. What Paul Tough refers to as Performance Character (diligence, perseverance, grit and gratitude) in his New York Times article “What if the secret to success is failure”, these aptitudes are far more likely to lead to the places the students said they wanted to go than will getting a ‘good’ job.

I began to wonder, ‘Is it possible for my classroom to become a place where students develop their personal management skills, in addition to learning the mandated curriculum?

In Toronto, where I live and work, the public school board has just announced their latest round of budget cuts, including the closure of 32 school cafeterias, as well as cuts to maintenance spending and teacher development programs. Some of these cuts result from declining enrollment, and some due to the expense of maintaining an aging institution. It’s difficult for administrators to consider future innovation when they are scrambling just to maintain the status quo.

And the status quo should concern us. The Canadian Education Association, a leading research centre, reports that by grade eleven, 60% of students say they are disengaged with school. Student apathy is on the rise, and it is clear that the institutional obstacle course set out by school has little to do with the lives of our students. 80% of high school dropouts have a C average or better. Students are telling us that what happens in school doesn’t matter.

The notion that school is out of touch is no news for most of us. In education circles, there’s been lots of talk about 21st century learning and that the jobs students will have twenty years from now do not yet exist. There is growing consensus that contemporary students need to develop skills around innovation, critical thinking and creativity. Being able to make decisions in the face of uncertainty is something we all need to become more comfortable with.

As a high school teacher, this means my work happens in a classroom that has access to fewer institutional resources, where students are becoming increasingly bored and the curriculum we cover is of little relevance for the lives they will live.

My hope comes in belief that students are the most underutilised resource in schools today. Most are sitting idle, shuffling one class to next, doing their best to jump through the hoops, if they haven’t given up already. In calling on students to take increasing levels of responsibility for things that happen in class, we increase our resource base, engage our students, and put learners in position to develop the skills and aptitudes they will require for future success.

This year, I developed a classroom space that brought the principles and practices of student-directed learning into our institutional classroom. The fundamental challenge was to foster student-designed, project-based, hands-on learning experiences that met the curriculum standards of the course.

I had the chance to work with two different classes at two different schools; a group of suburban eighteen year-olds from relatively privileged homes intending to continue their post-secondary studies, and a group of urban fourteen year-olds, most of them identified as learning disabled, who had been placed in a remedial English class.

In both cases, my initial attempts to introduce self-directed learning were met with resistance. With the Grade 12s, some resisted for fear that they wouldn’t get the 97%s they needed to get in to the ‘right’ schools. They were concerned because they didn’t see the typical classroom obstacle course and therefore it was unclear whether they would wind up with their targeted GPA. The Grade 9s resisted because some of the routines I introduced evoked aspects of elementary school, and these particular students struggle with a ‘dummy’ tag. Some seemed to sense that I was treating them as less than capable. In both cases, we persevered, and the results were remarkable. I will attempt to share my experience by describing the four basic platforms of these student-designed classrooms.

1. Teach students program design

Governments mandate a range of curriculum outcomes that students must demonstrate in order to earn their course credit. The challenge is to familiarize students with those outcomes, and be able to make connections between their projects and what they need to show they can do in order to get their credit.

By the time students are in high school, they are accustomed to having the teacher design the learning experience. My approach has been to run the first two weeks of class in a standard teacher-designed approach, using textbook reading, blackboard lessons and a test. After the test, I show students the connections between the government standards and our classroom activities. We then brainstorm other ways students could have learned the information and demonstrated their achievements. In the second unit, students are provided with an easy-to-understand list of curriculum objectives, and encouraged to design their own program. A teacher-designed program is still available to those students who choose it.

In 21st century learning communities, there is a lot of talk about gamification and the extent to which young people are drawn to computer games. By having students participate in the design of their classroom program, the same aspects of gaming that are so captivating in the digital realm are realized in the physical space of the classroom. They become both programmer and player.

2. Students identify and express things they already have going for them

The most common criticism I hear about decentralizing the classroom is that not all students are enterprising, and there are many who need to be told what to do and offered structure towards success. My counter is that all students are capable of enterprise, whether it’s choosing between pencil and pen or between leading a discussion and making a drawing.

Developing capacity for effective decision-making is a skill that can only be developed through experience with choice. For most, it is an overwhelming notion to try and decide what to do in a world of open possibilities. As such, my students begin by developing their Asset Maps, a representation of all the skills and interests and support they already have available to them. This exercise draws on the teachings of Positive Psychology, and allows each and every class member to be seen as enabled, in possession of a capacity unique within our classroom community.

With each of us having a sense of the tools we already have, we describe our get-to-dos and ‘dream’ projects, those activities that we already have an inclination in working towards. While not all initiatives may be appropriate for the classroom context, in identifying the things students already have going for them, subsequent activity takes on an increased level of relevance for participating students.

3. Students identify and track their jobs and responsibilities

Of course, whenever someone is empowered to make decisions, there is also incentive to shirk responsibility. This is all the more concern because contemporary students are coming of age in a consumer-oriented culture of instant-gratification, where choice and consequence are often disconnected.

To develop skills of organization and accountability, my students first identify their classroom responsibilities, and subsequently track their performance of these ‘jobs’ in a basic accounting system. My Grade 12s had difficulty getting to our 8 a.m. class, and so their job was to be in class on time and ready to learn. The Grade 9s struggled to treat each other with dignity, and so their job was to demonstrate Active Listening each day.
To this end, I introduced a double-entry accounting system, through which both students and teacher track daily performance. It takes some effort those first few weeks to get students to buy in and track their behavior in an honest way, but when compliance is far easier than avoidance (think tax evasion; in the case of our classroom, students had to sit with me when they had skipped an entry or else had to chat with me if we had a dispute between whether or not they had performed their job), it became a system that offered a clear picture of student responsibility that came from the students themselves. Students began to take ownership of the decisions they were making.

Introducing a classroom currency system tied to the performance of their jobs has a lot of potential, through which students can access a range of classroom resources ‘sold’ by their teacher. Because students are developing projects of their own design, anything that a teacher can offer to support the student interest will have value. I was able to sell books, craft supplies, supplemental academic activities, as well as my agreement to arrange a field trip to a local film festival. It is worth noting that no student is ever denied access to items sold by the store, but instead students with insufficient earnings require loans from the classroom bank. All students are required to submit monthly income statements that track their earnings and spending. Feedback from students suggests that the currency adds an additional layer to the gaming aspect of our classroom that they really enjoy.

When students learn to track their decisions, they come to understand that energy is a form of currency. While we all have expenses to meet, it is in spending on things that might go up in value that we develop our basis for wealth and well being. Whether or not students recognize the broader implications, by designing their own learning, they become invested in what happens in the classroom. How much energy did I spend on what the teacher told me to do? How much did I spend on the projects that I thought I wanted to develop? These are fundamental questions that we might all consider for ourselves.

4. Collect, assess and evaluate student learning

Within school, grading is a mandate. As teachers, we are responsible for making sure each student has a mark associated with their learning performance. It’s how we know where each student stands relative to the curriculum standards.

By making students aware of the learning requirements for their course, they can take responsibility for demonstrating that they have met course standards. In the Grade 12 class, students had one particular project; to share with the class something they value in a way that we might value it too. During the three weeks leading up to the student presentations, I had an opportunity to sit with each of my students and ask them how they were going to connect their efforts with the curriculum standards. We had meaningful dialogue about their learning, and I was able to suggest specific things they could do to fulfill curriculum requirements. Through self and peer evaluations, students generated much of the evidence required for evaluation, and by the time I sat down with their projects, the marking was already complete. Assigning a grade was easy.

Many teachers already use portfolios as part of their classroom practice. I like the term ‘Investment Portfolio’, because it frames student process as an investment in learning. In addition to the dialogue and activity that happen in class every day, these portfolios offer evidence that be used for assessment and evaluation.

What about the fundamentals?

Peers drive entrepreneurial inclinations

Teachers can identify the handful of have-to-haves of their course, offer it like a job that students must complete. With the Grade 9 class, I recognized that many students were struggling with the use of commas. Students knew that Wednesdays were teacher instruction days, and so I used one of those Wednesdays to lead a fairly uninteresting activity on the difference between periods and commas. Once students had demonstrated sufficient aptitude with the practice, they could return to their projects. They had incentive to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Additionally, students knew they were responsible for demonstrating the proper use of commas and periods in any written work they completed for the duration of the semester.

The issue today is that school is exclusively like a job for students, without encouragement of personal investment, where students default to the consumer-oriented behavior that institutional experiences tend to encourage.

When I speak with my peers in the teaching community, most express some element of fear in handing over the wheel of learning to their students. Concerns about too much curriculum in too limited a time, misbehaving students, and malaise about education reform are their most common themes. I empathise, in that teachers themselves exist in a highly institutionalised environment where most of their incentives are to do the same thing they have done before. If my Grade 12s had a hard time letting go of a predetermined course of action, it is not hard to see why teachers would struggle with the same. In the top-down, teacher-centric model of the 20th century classroom, the most difficult thing for a teacher to say to their class was ‘I don’t know’. They were expected to be the all-knowing sage. But for a teacher to facilitate a classroom that has relevance in the 21st century, they need to say ‘I don’t know’ as often as possible. This way students will develop the resourcefulness to answer their own questions, and teachers can help mentor by developing their own learning projects as models for students to consider.

Proceeds to students
Through connecting choice to consequence
Relevance, perseverance, community

Proceeds to teacher

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