Tag Archives: voice and choice

Student-Centered Teaching

This is the second post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Why do we teach? A basic question, but how you answer may reveal your philosophy. I would argue that no one’s content is so valuable that kids are going to suffer in life if they miss it. The core of what we do isn’t curriculum, standards, or academic growth. Nope, it’s the kids. So making them the center of your class makes sense. Let’s look at some examples of what that might look like.

Space

The first time I enter a classroom, I observe the space and make some assumptions. Are the desks in rows facing a screen or are there chairs in groups facing each other? Does the teacher’s desk and “personal area” take up a huge chunk of the room? Do the walls have student work showing creativity or does it look like a Pinterest page vomited on them? Are there past projects, supplies, or “junk” laying around demonstating that students make things or does the room feel sterile?

All of these things are evidence of whether the adult teaching or students working is the center of the teacher’s philosophy. Room design communicates to students the culture and values of the teacher from desk alignment, to alternative seating choices to light and decorations. Is it about efficiency and beauty or conversations and inquiry? Student-centered teachers exhibit kid’s work as the theme of their space.

Active

Teachers who have already experimented with projects of any kind, even if they may be dessert projects, are taking the first steps toward PBL. If you have kids making, kids working in groups, or kids presenting in any fashion then you are taking baby steps toward a student-centered philosophy. If you have ever run a simulation, used skits or drama, or run a genius hour then you are more likely to shift to PBL easier.

Teachers with an active classroom of students moving out of their seats and working in groups are more comfortable with PBL. They understand that silence often implies consent to teacher control and that productive noise is evidence of learning. They understand the energy generated from a healthy buzz of working kids.

Why Over What

For years I taught U.S. history, making sure we “covered” all of the standards by the state. But in my mind, the standards and yes, even the project students were doing was not the end all, be all. I had my own set of goals for all of the students in the class. It was my “why,” my enduring understanding.

For me there were 3 things that I wanted every student to learn and U.S. History was the vehicle that I taught threw: 

  1. BS detection
  2. Multiple viewpoints
  3. Empathy

BS detection is important so that my students are critical thinkers. I don’t want them fooled by “fake news” from any political viewpoint. The multiple viewpoints of historical events lead to my final goal of empathy. I want my students to understand others’ views so that they can step out of their own biases and care for others.

Student-centered means teachers are more concerned about the enduring understandings of their content discipline than about any specific standards. It is about developing successful humans, not making sure that students know all of the curriculum.

Culture is Everything

I believe everything that we do and don’t do in the classroom creates our culture. Every word, activity, conversation said or omitted tells students what is valued. The layout of the room mentioned above, greeting students at the door by name, and developing relationships all show students that they are valued.

My mantra for students is a culture of “Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Effort.” At the beginning of the year, in a stern voice with no smile I tell students, “If you have to go to the bathroom or get a drink, don’t ever ask me.” I pause for effect, secretly enjoying the concerned looks on their faces. Then I continue with a smile, “Just go.” I tell them that they don’t have to earn trust in my room but that trust is assumed until broken. I talk to my students as adults, not talking down to them.

Student voice and choice is a key component of PBL and many teachers are comfortable giving students choices over content, products, or assessment methods. But student VOICE won’t happen without a strong culture.

One year early in our Civil Rights project,  a conversation about discrimination turned into an open mic of students sharing stories of when they were treated unfairly. It wasn’t in my lesson plans for that day, but it was one of the most powerful feelings of community in the classroom that I have ever been a part of!

Sally raised her hand and shared that she was gay. She shared the pain of being rejected from her church youth group and her previous school. The culture in our class was strong so that she felt safe to come out in front of everyone. Sally continued to use her voice to stand up for LGBTQ rights. Student-centered isn’t satisfied with student choice, it promotes student voice and amplifies it.

Being student-centered is the most important trait of a PBL teacher. This teacher doesn’t “own” the space, but designs it for group work and shows off high quality work. Their class is active with the healthy buzz of kids working on projects. PBL teachers know their why of putting kids first is more important than their what of content. They work hard to establish a healthy culture of caring and respect where kids know that they are valued and safe.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

“I want students to own their own learning”

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What do educators even mean when they say, “I want students to own their learning” in our school? Think about the context of that statement for a moment. In our highly standardized curriculum and over-tested classroom environments, this statement is an admission of guilt. Students are predominantly consuming “our learning,” being force-fed to them whether they like it or not.

Scenario 1

Imagine telling a child on her birthday that it is her special day and that she can have a party with a special meal, games, and gifts. Then imagine planning the party based solely on healthy food, a low budget, and what is convenient for you, ignoring any of the many attributes that make her a unique and special child. So a meal is planned, making sure to include the proper daily amount of fruit and vegetables and avoiding salty and sweet foods. Children are invited that she does not really know well or play with. Activities and decorations are based on themes that she has no interest in at all. Gifts are chosen by asking a stranger working in the store what a 6 year old likes. In all aspects, the cheapest option is chosen.

No parent would ever do that!

Scenario 2

Instead they would start with a birthday theme around her interests: mermaids, princesses, or unicorns. They would make her favorite foods, balancing nutrition with her tastes.  Her friends would come with personalized gifts that reflect her passions and hobbies. Maybe her parents would even plan a trip around something she loves because it is HER day, and HER party.

Reality in School

But isn’t the first option what school is like? Children need to learn required curriculum with a “balanced” intake of reading, writing, and math. Every student has to learn the same things, at the same time, sorted by age groups. They work with assigned groups on the same activities regardless of their personal interests or backgrounds. There is very little opportunity, in most schools, for students to “own” anything. It all comes in a one size fits all package from the district.

The same analogy about choice can be made for buying a house, a new car, or even clothes. When people “own” something they make choices, customize it to make theirs, and personalize it.

Voice and Choice

So if we want students to “own their own learning,” districts, administrators, and teachers need to give up some control and turn to student “voice and choice.” We don’t need to get students to “buy in” to something that they are not interested in (notice that this financial jargon implies that schools are “selling” something that students don’t want).

The first year of our wall to wall PBL school, the biology teacher did a project where students had to make a video on invasive species. A group of students approached him with a different idea. They had heard about a de-icing agent being used at our local airport which was ending up in the local stream. He let those students pursue this project instead of the video. The students went to the stream and did testing to prove the effects. They ended up getting more out of this project than any other group because they were allowed to explore their passions in biology.

Humans are naturally curious explorers of their world, and all children have things that they are passionate about. If we ever want students to “own school”, we have to give them the power to control some aspects of it and pursue their interests. Students will never own the learning unless we let them make it theirs.

 

5 Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher

This is the first post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

The past few years I have worked with many teachers introducing the components of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and helping them design their own projects. Sometimes it has been a teacher’s first attempt at PBL and other times it has been more of a fine tuning of something that they already do in their classroom. I see some teachers jump right in the deep end with complex, Gold Standard projects that they design themselves and others start more slowly with simpler projects.

This post is by no means a judgement of the teachers who start PBL more gradually. Everyone needs to take their own pace with the switch to PBL so that they are comfortable and find success. (Note: Check out this great post on seeing PBL as a Dimmer Switch for more on “gradually releasing” to PBL).

If it’s not sustainable, what’s the point?

In working with the dive-right-in teacher type, here are 5 things that I have observed. Note, these traits are just predictors of an easier transition to teaching through project-based learning. Obviously there are exceptions, and other characteristics may be more or less useful depending on the specific context and application.

1. Student-centered

The most important shift toward PBL is about giving up total teacher control of the classroom. We don’t want students to “drown” from a lack of structure, but to thrive as they take ownership of their learning.  My shortest summary of  PBL is: “Less of us (teachers), more of them (students).” Teachers who are willing to give students more freedom, voice, and choice in their classrooms find PBL a natural fit.

Classrooms may be a bit chaordic (ordered chaos) at times, but student-centered teachers realize that silence and order often indicates compliance rather than engagement and learning. Student-centered classrooms focus on a culture of caring and relationships over rules, standards, and curriculum. These teachers focus on the “why” over the “what.” They are more focused on enduring understandings of their curriculum and success skills, than on individual standards without context.

2. Flexible

PBL does not fit in a box. When students are driving the learning through inquiry, the “lesson plan” often takes detours down interesting paths. The logistics of a project usually have unforeseen difficulties: a community partner cancels their guest speaking engagement, student filming and editing take longer than expected, or technology falls through.

Student groups always have challenges because they are kids who are learning to communicate and work together. Flexible teachers are adaptable to whatever gets thrown at them. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t stressed at times (especially the day of a showcase!) but that they are comfortable improvising when necessary. Flexible teachers are not afraid of things being messy at times.

3. Passionate

Is a teacher curious about learning outside of her content area? Is she a creative makers in her free time? Does she geek out about her hobbies in front of the class? The edujargon here would be that she is a lifelong learner. Passion is contagious!

Passionate teachers connect with students by sharing their own interests and hobbies and make the classroom emotionally safe for students to do the same. This leads to the teacher designing projects where students design solutions according to their strengths and connected to their interests. Passionate teachers also enjoy designing curriculum, not just teaching from a book or pacing guide because one of their passions is the subject that they teach. They are always reflecting on how to make their content fun and accessible to their students.

4. Self efficacious

Most teachers are willing to go above and beyond stated duties, but this is more about taking on something outside of your curriculum. It may be a school club or coaching. It may be leading the production of a play. It may be a personal project totally outside of school.

Teachers with strong self efficacy are comfortable managing the “messy middle” of PBL and don’t need a curriculum guide to tell them what to teach next.  Note: this is not about being a super hero and killing yourself. These teachers say “no” to things like committees, grading homework, and voluntary meetings. Instead self efficacious teachers prioritize their time to specific things related to the project that they care about.

5. Collaborative

Truly authentic projects usually involve an integration of content. Collaborative teachers are willing to work with others outside of their subject area to address engaging cross-curricular problems. PBL also requires collaboration with community partners so teachers need to be comfortable reaching out to experts in fields that they may know little about.

Collaborative teachers aren’t afraid of a lack of knowledge or skill about something related to the project because they can reach out to experts and learn alongside their students. They are also modeling for students how to successfully work in groups building on everyone’e strengths. Some of the best collaborative teachers that I know have even collaborated with their students outside of school.

One of the great things about this list is that these are not inherent characteristics that we are born with or without. They are traits and attitudes that we can grow in if we make a conscious choice! What are your strongest PBL teaching traits? What would you add to this list?

Want to learn more about the ideal traits of a PBL teacher? Check out this series where I explore each trait in more detail:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Hat tip to Teresa, Chris, Anthony, Dave, Justin, Matt,  JoAn, Randi, Kiffany, and Drew for contributing to my thinking on this post. 

Break Protocols with a Purpose!

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Teachers love to establish protocols at the beginning of the year and in general it is a good practice. We need structure in schools but I feel like there is often an overemphasis on rules that is based on administrators trying to control teachers or teachers trying to control students (same exact phenomenon really).

I have spoken out against standardization and structure at times, but it has a time and place. For example when I drive my car I am very happy that we have rules about driving: which side of the road, how to signal and make turns, and slow drivers in the left lane!!!!! Without these protocols I would probably be dead. Protocols around safety make sense and are imperative. In the classroom we need protocols to establish safety for our students and this is especially important for their emotional safety.

The counter example is a chef. There are protocols for proper cooking techniques. There is a science to how to prepare food properly so that it is safe and delicious. My wife and I often watch Chopped. The format of the show is that it is a competition where contestants are given 4-5 mystery ingredients that they need to turn into appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The chefs on the show never make the same dishes because cooking is also an art. If they do the science wrong, then the dish can be a disaster. But if they do the science right, but don’t personalize it into a unique dish then the food can be bland and boring.

Teaching is like being a chef. It is an art and a science. There is a science and a structure behind good teaching (PBL is my favorite structure :). I do not believe that teachers should just show up and “wing it” everyday. On the other hand, if we truly believe in student voice and choice then we need to have some flexibility in our classrooms. Protocols and rules need to be able to change and adapt to the students’ needs in our rooms. If you haven’t started school yet, then you have no relationships to build protocols on. Too much structure and protocols can stifle creativity and learning.

I love comparing the African proverb with the Picasso quote at the top. Breaking protocols for no purpose makes no sense. But when you really understand what you are trying to accomplish then you will start to recognize when protocols are getting in the way. My thermometer is to ask myself if the protocol limits student learning through voice and choice. If yes, then I need to consider other ways to structure learning.

Final thought: build protocols with your staff or students. Don’t force structure on them!

How do we move to student centered learning?

Yong Zhao wrote an incredible, research based piece arguing the way that schools should be. It is a lengthy piece but you should read it in its entirety right now! No really, go do it.

Now that you have finished I want to respond to his recommendations at the end with some questions. I want to make it clear that my questions do not come from a perspective of disagreement, but rather that I find his writing to be a strong theoretical argument that I agree with. My questions come as a practicing teacher wondering how to implement his recommendations and from the challenges that I see in my classroom. Although I am a skeptical person, these questions are in the spirit of how to make this shift happen on the ground level.

My main question is how do we structure this kind of learning environment? I am going to explore this from two perspectives. First from an elementary point of view and next from middle and high school.

If we start students out in a school that is entirely student driven than I think it could work naturally. Students would never be “poisoned” by motivation killing things like forced AR reading logs, boring worksheets, and other adult proscribed manipulation. I do believe that humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning things that they choose to learn.

I truly can see this approach working and I believe that it has been done in systems such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools.

Developmentally students change in middle and high school and I have harder questions about Yao’s approach there. First of all, if students were in this kind of environment their whole lives and never experienced “traditional,” controlled schooling than maybe it would keep working for all students. I never seen this in action, so I don’t know. Part of being a teenager is finding one’s identity and I wonder if “fighting” against schooling would happen for some children no matter what the environment?

In my PBL school we have lots of voice and choice (but not the level of freedom that Zhao recommends of no classes or curriculum. We still teach to the standards). I see some students thrive when given the chance to explore their passions in class. I see other students whose default choice is to hang out and not do much when given the opportunity. They would rather play games, watch videos, or text/talk to their friends.

How do we handle this in Zhao’s recommendations? Do we allow students to “detox” from being forced to learn for a period of time? (this question deserves its own post). Is this a result of years of boredom in schooling that had no purpose to them personally? How do we shift students from a traditional, adult controlled model to a student centered one? How do we deal with students with little motivation? How do we deal with students who have personal and family issues that are much more important and often overwhelming to them than anything at school?

I would love to see a follow up to this theory piece dealing with how we should structure, if at all, student centered learning and how to successfully shift classrooms to it.