The Difference

Two recent experiences have significantly impacted the way I think about teaching and learning and the importance of student autonomy and volition in our classrooms.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a PD seminar around embedding technology in the classroom.  A wonderful goal, really.  I think embedded tech is important; in fact, I think it should be the status quo in every classroom, every day.  I honestly think there’s little point to tech as an after thought so that we can say we’re doing something “techie”, as if that’s the goal instead of deep, authentic, transformative learning.

As I listened to the presenter, something didn’t sit right with me.  At first I couldn’t figure out what it was. So much of what was being said I agreed with.  Tech needs to be part of the entire learning process; social bookmarking during research, Google Docs to create a common document, collaboration between peers, the creation of technology projects –things that I advocate and have implemented in my own classroom. It wasn’t until talk turned to the importance of outlining  student objectives at the beginning of each class that it hit me — This is a teacher-centred classroom that’s being advocated  — the complete opposite of my own classroom.

As presenter and participants discussed the importance of  introducing students to the days objectives by posting them where students can see them, I thought, “”Why would I do that?” My students know what our objectives are because they’ve chosen them and they know how they’re going to be assessed because they construct the criteria.  Not that they can’t be posted, they can.  But who creates the objectives is even more important than where they’re posted.

And that’s when I realized — it’s not enough to embed technology.  It’s possible to embed technology in every aspect of teaching and learning and it still be a completely teacher-centred classroom.  The teacher in control of what is learned, how it’s learned and for a large part, how students show their learning. This needs to change.

The real power comes when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning — when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. This is where true student empowerment and engagement begins.

The second experience is somewhat along this same line.  It involved my two daughters.  Rebekah, who is 7, and Chloe, who is 4, were playing school. Rebekah was the teacher, and she’d spent a fair amount of time creating worksheets for Chloe. She was really proud of the work and effort that went into these magnificent artifacts of learning. Chloe, in her 4-year-old wisdom, didn’t want to do them. Why? They weren’t any fun.  Maybe we should have more 4-year-olds designing our educational system, but I digress.

Rebekah came to me completely distraught that Chloe wouldn’t jump through her hoops.  So I responded from my own experience as a teacher and said, “Well, why don’t you ask Chloe what she wants to learn about?”

Rebekah looked at me retorted, “That is not what school is like.”

“Well, that’s what my classroom is like.”

Quite emphatically she exclaimed with all of the authority that a seven-year-old can muster, “Well, all the years I’ve been at school I’ve never had a teacher like that.  Miss-so and-so didn’t do that, and Mrs. so-and-so didn’t do that. You sit in your desk and do what the teacher tells you. That’s how school works.” And she stomped away.

I knew the assimilation into factory schooling began pretty young, but I didn’t realize how much it had taken hold by grade 3.  It was honestly shocking to encounter it face to face, especially with my own daughter.  And to try to convince her that there was another way “to do” school was much like trying to convince her that fairies were real. Students aren’t really asked what they want to learn about. That’s a fairy tale.

We need to make this fairy tale a reality. Student-centred learning is powerful, transformative and life changing, for teachers and students.  I’ll be honest, it can be difficult and messy, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never go back.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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16 Responses to The Difference

  1. Rayleen says:

    Shelley, you have given us all something to think about. While I read your post I reflected on my own classroom and teaching practice. I’m afraid to say that it still was teacher centred no matter how hard I tried for it not to be. How do you see “setting objectives” working in a Gr. 1 or 2 setting? I agree with you when you say “The real power comes when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning” however I struggle with what that looks like in the primary….it’s not that I don’t want to do it but maybe need to watch someone like you in order to fully understand what it looks like. Have you some video of what this looks like that we could share with teachers?

  2. 3D Eye says:

    Wonderful post, Shelley. Very inspiring. This is what teaching should be like. Just wondering whether your colleagues all work in the same way.

    • No, they don’t. I’m really mostly a lone ranger. My students have talked about how it can be quite shocking to go in and out of the door of our classroom. They have to adjust to being in control of their learning in our classroom, and then re-adjust to teacher centred classrooms for the rest of their classes. At times, I think it can be kind of like whiplash. But, unfortunately,I think it will be a long time until we see student-centred classrooms as the norm.

  3. Robin Neal says:

    Thanks, Shelley, for directing our attention to where it should be…giving students ownership of their learning. Technology tools make that goal more feasible and organized, but the true power of learning comes from helping students light their own fires. Also, it’s important to note that we’re not talking about an “either/or” situation. It is possible to have moments of student-centered learning (e.g. students organizing their own campaigns against modern slavery) balanced with more teacher-centered approaches (e.g. helping students write a literary analysis essay about the major symbols in THE GREAT GATSBY). In my own teaching, I’m drawn more and more to the student-centered work, though, because…it doesn’t feel like work. Teaching from a student-centered mindset can be messy and complicated, but it feels more like play.

    • I completely agree. When students own their learning, it frees me up to do what I’m really good at — Asking questions to provoke deeper thought, providing feedback on their writing, and having them consider how they learn. Not only does it feel more like play, it actually feels authentic.

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  5. Lisa Noble says:

    I shared your daughter’s comment about sitting at your desk and doing what the teacher told you with my intermediate level students yesterday. This was in a discussion about classroom rituals, and how they were created. They, for the most part, felt that their experience echoed your daughter’s. Made me more determined than ever to work with them this year, to design where our learning wants to take us.

  6. I like your observations very much, but let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment . . . Let’s imagine a creative student who hates math. She avoids math. Is it important for this student to learn math? How does a student-centered teacher make kids master core subjects that a student has no taste for? Should we allow students to drop math and science at Grade 3? Yes, I was such a student! Still hate math, but glad I was forced to master the basics.

    • I think there are certain basics students need to master. Math is one of them. You can’t survive without math. But here’s the thing, we don’t really tend to teach math in an authentic way in schools. Mostly it’s solving problems on a worksheet. But real math is used for something. It accomplishes something. We need to teach math like that.

      • Nina says:

        Student-centered and student-directed learning are two different methodologies, but they often seem to be understood to be the same approach. As a teacher you can choose to practice student-centered teaching and let your students have choices about how they want to learn certain content – so it is compatible with any given curriculum. Student-directed learning goes further and allows choices even regarding the content, and I can understand why that would be frowned upon by some educators. As for student-centered teaching & learning, I have really hard time understanding why anyone wouldn’t want to let students be in the nexus their own learning.

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  8. Mike Nantais says:

    Grat stories to illustrate important observations, Shelley. I will be sharing this post with my pre-service teachers.

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  10. 3D Eye says:

    Reblogged this on 3D Eye and commented:
    Shelley Wright is a teacher who believes in all children having the right to experience “deep, authentic, transformative learning”. We support her completely in this outlook and this aim. As Shelley says, “It’s possible to embed technology in every aspect of teaching and learning and it still be a completely teacher-centred classroom . . . Real power comes when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning – when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. This is where true student empowerment and engagement begins.

    Shelley is obviously an inspirational teacher, and this blog post, “The Difference”, indicates with great clarity and subtle humour where education and schools should be heading.

  11. Pingback: Week 5 Reflection: “The Difference” « Cherie Nelson

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