Let´s face it, despite our best intentions, many of us probably have found ourselves building our unit frameworks on what will eventually be on a student test or other assessment. When we hear phrases like ¨teaching to the test,¨ we shudder and think, ¨Not me!¨ However, really reflect on your teaching practices, and you will see that at some point, like me, you probably have.
This framework building and coaching through content, does not just happen with those big, scary, standardized tests, but all types of summative assessments. Often times, we are the foundation layers, the framework builders and the master contractors of our classroom, and our students are only there to regurgitate the content. No matter how hands-on, differentiated, or pedagogically sound our instruction is, it is just that: our instruction. But what if we changed that? What if we gave our students the the blueprints, the tools, and the knowledge for how to use those tools, in order to build knowledge for themselves? What would happen? Chances are you would be entering an empowered learning classroom.
Empowered learning is not an easy road to take. For anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in the classroom, we think of the many ¨what if´s¨ that could happen if we flip the control of the classroom, mainly into the hands of our students. However, if we spend the time teaching our students how to correctly use the learning tools at their disposal and overall expectations for an empowered learning model, which takes a lot of time on the front-end, then you will see engagement and success that you may have never seen before.
With an empowered learning model, students will take the essential questions, ultimate learning goals, and overall objectives for a unit or content area and create their own learning path. By the end of the unit, your students should have arrived at the same destination, with the same content area, but have all taken very different paths to get there. While the idea of passing the baton over to your students may seem overwhelming, here are some tips presented by a research article, from the University of Hawaii, titled Empowered Learning: Fostering Thinking Across the Curriculum:
- Make connections with all staff and resources. Whether it be your school librarian, an instructional coach, or another teacher, the more adults you can get on board with empowered learning models, the more successful you and your students will be.
- Model processes and procedures for your students. Once again, on the front-end this technique requires a lot of work on your part. Most students have had little exposure to this approach to their learning, so they need to learn how to do it. Make sure to set clear expectations and structure to what their learning path should look like.
- Allow time for guided practice and feedback. Along with modeling expectations, you will still need to schedule in time for guided practice so your students can get an idea of what they can do to improve their learning and, more importantly, how they can do it. Many studies show that useful feedback is the key to student success.
- Make sure kids know it´s not the what that is important, but the why. Setting clear objectives that do not surround fact gathering and presentation but practical application, will make learning more relevant. The ¨why¨ is always going to be a better motivator for students than the ¨what.¨
- Give students checklists, rubrics, and deadlines up front. This goes with basic expectations and will help to cement the fact that while they are taking charge of their learning, you are still the guide (just on the side). You care that they get their job done and do it right. Make sure to periodically check-in with them to see that they are meeting what needs to be done. It´s that conferencing that allows for key feedback time.
The empowered learning model can be a big one to take on, but the rewards it reaps and long term benefits it has on students far outweigh anything you can get from teach to a test model that many of inadvertently may find ourselves doing. Try piecing in some of the components of this model in a small unit and work your way up. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised at how easy it becomes to pull off.