Shifting Gears: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat
In schools across the U.S. and Tanzania, teachers are instructing students in a variety of subjects and at a wide range of paces. Teachers are burning out, trying to meet the needs of every student while attempting to meet federal and state expectations. Despite all of this, they often don’t ask, “How do the students want to learn?” and “What do they want to learn?” How can we expect students to engage in their learning and find success beyond school (not just in it), if we never put them in the driver’s seat of their own education?
Personalized learning is the future—an education that is relevant, engaging, and authentic. This should be the expectation (not just the hope), and as mentors we can help make this shift possible by implementing the following three strategies.
Recognize that higher-level thinking is more effective than factual recall. This is no longer just about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains, but instead about moving from a pedagogy that requires students focus on procedural recall to one in which students solve tasks of greater complexity. They communicate, collaborate, think critically, unleash their creativity, and take pride in their own expertises—all of which enrich their learning journey.
At Opportunity Education, our Skills Framework is carefully curated to fuel the process of investigation and discovery. It prompts students to build on previous knowledge, make connections beyond the walls of a classroom, and explore the possibilities in ways none of us can imagine or predict. We can partner with students in their learning experience by tailoring instruction in various ways. One example is to use purposeful groupings, choosing relevant materials to those groups based on results of skills assessments or habit reviews, and to incorporate frequent feedback into one’s schedule. In some cases, you may even be able to allow students to take on leadership roles and organize their own groupings. We recognize this will take time and practice, but who said mentors weren’t the ones learning, too?
Distinguish authentic learning experiences from others. It is hard to imagine a world where we haven’t prepared the next generation for creating value in their community, but thus far we have simply prepared them to regurgitate facts without context. Not only has that been unproductive, but it isn’t an authentic learning experience. How can we create an authentic experience without stretching ourselves too thin?
Here’s how: Redesign your course syllabus and learning space from the perspective of a student (not a teacher). What would each student want to know, each step of the way? What kind of space encourages collaboration and discovery? What language is friendly enough that students can progress through a course while also self-pacing? In your syllabus or course guide, this may mean abandoning traditional deadlines, units, or projects, and instead breaking these down by Foundational Concepts, Habits and Skills, and Assessment. In your classroom design, providing flexible, collaborative seating will change the culture to a safe place to share ideas and solutions. Using student feedback can drastically change the student’s view on learning and simultaneously take some weight off your shoulders.
Infuse technology to close the learning gaps. It’s no secret that many students come into our courses never having learned basic technology skills or having the opportunity to use technology regularly in their learning environments. We can combat these gaps by coaching them through basic technology skills, from using Google tools to researching authoritative sources to using the Quest! Platform itself. These skills are incredibly valuable in school and will have applicable use beyond the classroom.
Technology helps to automate the process of assessment, response, and growth at an appropriate pace for each student. We shouldn’t be dependent on technology, but instead use it as a tool to reach the needs of all our students. Students can use this process of iteration to set goals and show growth—a deeply vital aspect of achieving success beyond school and establishing a future rich with continued learning. Additionally, when we coach students through these skills, they then become leaders and trailblazers of technology for others.
A one-size-fits-all educational model will never meet the needs of all students. Placing students in the driver’s seat of their own learning (even in small ways) will not only increase the value of their passions, curiosities, and interests, but it will create a sense of ownership and independence. This shifts the future of education and equalizes the playing field for many. And, as mentors, it begins with us.
Kelsey Cain is the former Director of Professional Learning at Opportunity Education. She worked closely with schools and OE teams to develop and implement a comprehensive professional learning program for all school-based groups that align with organizational goals and strengthen instructional practices. Prior to OE, she was a classroom teacher and district leader across both urban and rural school districts in the U.S, and taught in Ghana and Costa Rica.