Tag Archives: voice and choice

“I want students to own their own learning”

via GIPHY

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.