Educator (and EML regular contributor) Lee Skallerup Bessette writes about what it means to “foster independent learning” in an educational climate with restrictive curriculum, high-stakes assessments, and mandated standards. Here she offers concrete steps for engaging students in the decision-making that happens in the classroom, giving them more agency and a larger stake in their learning.
In the closing paragraph of my last piece on college readiness, I suggest that there is one major component that K-12 schools can work for: developing independent learners. In fact, the very first trait the Common Core lists as being evidence of college and career readiness is students “demonstrate independence.” But how do you create independent learners within the confines of the Common Core, or within any education system and curriculum?
This is not a minor question. Companies like Pearson are making millions, if not billions, on selling set curriculum, exercises, and exams tailor-made for the Common Core, but also to whatever state or provincial mandates preceded it. The Common Core was never meant to dictate curriculum, but the education industrial complex gladly stepped in to take on that responsibility.
Nevertheless, for students to succeed moving forward, be it in college or a career, they need to know how to learn on their own. We know this, as educators, having watched our own profession change and evolve rapidly over the last twenty-plus years. We have had to learn, re-learn, and adapt. So, too, must our students, and it is becoming increasingly necessary that we address the fact that students are largely not independent learners inside the classroom.
But they are largely independent learners outside of the classroom. They know how to find how-to videos and documentation (and make them themselves) through their communities on the Internet. They teach themselves (and each other) how to do and achieve all kinds of things, although often they are activities we don’t approve of, like “cheating.” But cheating is just a by-product of our system that demands rote memorization and conformity, rather than the creativity and independence displayed by those creating the how-to guides.
Start at the End
What are the Student Learning Outcomes that you are looking to achieve with your students during the term, semester, unit, or year? Start there with your students. Look at them, discuss them, define them, and make sure everyone understands them. And not just in the way you understand them, but in all the ways the students understand them. This is an opportunity for a real dialogue about what the purpose of the particular class is, and even more importantly, the role the students play within it.
When I introduced peer-driven learning in my Freshman Writing class, we spent the first class spending all our time going over the learning outcomes, rather than my telling them how they would be graded or dictating the schedule for the course (largely because neither of those things had yet been set, as the students were going to decide many of these elements). Often, this is the part of the syllabus we spend the least amount of time on, in part because students don’t really think about the point of the course beyond “how will I get my A” or “how can I complete this requirement”? But the students began to understand in that moment that there was more to the course than simply a grade and some credits: they were expected to learn, to achieve, to grow their skills. How they did it, however, I left up to them.
Setting Up the Petri Dish
In many ways, I chose one of the more restrictive courses in order to allow students to experience peer-driven learning: we had a set textbook, as well as a list of required assignments the students needed to complete. This gave the students and myself the necessary framework under which to play, experiment, and explore. In their book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown introduce the analogy of the Petri Dish for the new classroom: set up a series of clear and transparent boundaries, add elements to a nutrient-rich environment, and watch what grows.
Or festers, as I often joked with my own students.
The students couldn’t just do anything they wanted. Whatever they did needed to be anchored in readings in the textbook (Reading the World: Ideas that Mattered), and had to meet the learning outcomes. But within those confines, the students created music videos, comic books, games, activities, websites, and other projects that reflected their interests, their learning, their engagement with the source material, and the learning outcomes.
In an introductory literature course, I chose the anthology, but I tasked the students to choose what we should read from it and why. We perhaps read less than a standard literature course, but the students were invested in the works we did read, and had a better understanding of the issues, debates, and challenges that arise in a survey literature class. We met each of the learning outcomes, and did so in a way that was more meaningful for the students, because they had a hand in designing the course.
Doing it Together
No doubt, a textbook isn’t necessary. Depending on how you set up your course, the students may be responsible for finding the readings or other materials that will inform their learning in the fulfillment of the student learning outcomes. You, as the teacher, become a part of that process, guiding it, but also learning alongside the students. In this process, the students learn how to do research, but also how to evaluate research. Because they are in this together, as a community of learners, they hold each other accountable, much like the communities they have formed online and elsewhere.
The work, then, for you as a teacher, gets flipped, and the nature of the work that you do fundamentally changes. You work on setting the parameters, certainly, but then your role becomes much more improvisational, especially at first. You can’t predict where the students will go or where their interests will take them. But, this is an opportunity to model lifelong learning (and good independent learning strategies) for your students when you are confronted with a question or topic or reading that lies outside of your typical area of expertise or knowledge. You show them how you would go about learning about it.
I am, by my nature, very curious about a lot of different things. Twitter has been an invaluable resource for me in order to learn about topics quickly in a reliable way. It has also provided me with a broad base of knowledge, or at least a broader awareness of what is going on in the world and in various disciplines. Rarely does a student now come to me with an idea or approach where I don’t respond, I think I saw something on my Twitter feed about exactly that. The experience with the students, then, becomes an exchange of information, of resources, of opportunities.
How do we know if our students met the learning outcomes? Ask them. Go back over and discuss the outcomes, the aims set out in the first few classes, and then look at the work that has been done. Ask them often during the process, not just at the end. Their assignments will never look the same, and when developing a way to evaluate them, stick with the agree-upon (or assigned) learning outcomes. Some will be prettier than others. Some will be more technologically advanced. Some might just be an old-fashioned cardboard poster. But, did they meet the learning outcomes must always be the question to ask.
Even when a project ultimately looks like a failure.
I had a student come up with an ambitious plan to think about War and Peace. She had a well-developed social network online and wanted to crowdsource a definition of the two terms, do some textual analysis of it, and put it up against the definitions and understandings set forth in the textbook. It didn’t work, because no one stepped up to provide definition. Then, she decided to take the definitions and understandings from the various essays and turn them into memes. Except she lacked the design and technical skills to have them turn out the way she wanted them, and thus they remained conceptual, rather than concrete. She came up with a third project, but ran out of time to implement it.
She got an A.
She met the student learning outcomes insofar as she had critically engaged with the texts and attempted to communicate what she learned from the texts in a meaningful way. Just because it wasn’t a perfectly executed project, didn’t mean that she hadn’t displayed that she had met the student learning outcomes. The students did learn about War and Peace through her descriptions of the ideas and plans, instead of through the final results of the project. It was, in many ways, a failure, but in every way that mattered, meeting the student learning outcomes, it was a success.
But most importantly, she took responsibility for her learning and her failures, and she independently moved forward despite setbacks. She achieved a state of independent learning through trial and error, which was an important lesson for everyone, myself included. Fostering independence in students also means giving them room to fail, to learn from the failure, and to try again. Part of the challenge as a teacher is to see failure as something constructive, as an opportunity.
Because peer-driven learning, like all real learning, is messy. You will often fail right alongside your students. Don’t be afraid. It just means you’re learning, too.
Questions for discussion:
How can we carve out a space to take these sorts of risks with course design? Are school leaders supportive?
Students sometimes feel overwhelmed when they’re given this much intellectual leeway (in part because much of schooling involves making decisions for them). What needs to change – in school policy, in school culture – to give students more agency?
Image credits: Sergio Olivier