"Student-centered" is just one set of new buzzwords in the education world. I remember sitting in a professional development session watching a video of students conducting the class with very little input from the teacher. I remember staring at the screen with disbelief. I internally questioned, "Where are those students from?"
I thought to myself, "That school must be nothing like my school. Those students are nothing like my students. There was no way my students would be able to do that."
Days, weeks, and months went by. I pushed the video out of my mind and thought nothing more of it. One day, I sat in my eighth-grade classroom watching one of my male students. Leon was facilitating the warm-up activity. He asked the class a question, to which multiple students raised their hands. Leon selected a student, Aaron, to provide the answer. After Aaron presented his response, Robin raised her hand and asked for clarification. Aaron then turned to Leon and asked him to present his journal to the class to demonstrate a model as to how he arrived at his answer.
It was at that moment, when it hit me. My students had become the students in the video. With a few intentional acts on my part and a release of power, my classroom became the model of "student-centered."
"Let it go," the title of this article, is not a tribute to the famous children's movie, but rather a directive to teachers. To create an instructional shift that focuses on students, there are a few mentalities teachers just need to let go:
If you're like me, you've wanted to be a teacher since you were a child. At the ripe old age of six, I arranged my stuffed animals in a row and provided instruction on the alphabet using my chalkboard.
Many years later, I recognize a few coherent differences between students and stuffed animals. Children tend to be less content with the idea of sitting silently without moving, watching me write on a board. If your middle school classroom follows the lecture model, you are missing a great opportunity to witness discovery and creativity.
When planning lessons, allow the lesson objective to serve as the final destination. How you and the students get to that destination is based on the questions and comments of the students.
There will be times when a student suggests a method of solving a problem that is not correct. Sometimes it is worth the journey down that road if a child discovers the error on his or her own.
While it is indeed important to plan thorough lessons, be prepared to be flexible. Drifting off-road may be necessary to clarify misconceptions. Allow students the opportunity to drive the conversation. This includes sitting or standing in the front of the classroom, potentially writing on sacred chalkboard. A student's handwriting may not be as neat as a teacher's, but it is extremely rewarding to see students excited to provide multiple models to prove to their solution for finding the sum of two integers.
How long after providing a challenging word problem do you see your students' hands in the air asking for assistance? Early in my teaching career, my students would generally complete about two minutes of independent work before calling for reinforcements. Although I would assist them on a particular question, I learned that when these same students were assessed on the material, they had not mastered the concept. That is when I began to see the value of productive struggle.
These days, during the first week of school, when establishing classroom norms, I ask students if they have ever been lost in the same place twice. After a few puzzled looks, the majority of students will say no and a few charismatic individuals will provide an elaborate example of where they lost their way. I would then ask those who said they have been lost in the same place twice, "Was it easier to find your way the second time?" The answer to that question is always, "Yes."
I use this real-life example to explain why I will not answer every question that is asked. There is value to self-discovery of solutions. When students determine an appropriate method of solving a problem on their own, that knowledge belongs to them entirely. Moving forward, students will rely on their own reasoning and connections to solve problems. That is what is meant by a productive struggle.
Gone are the days of teachers and encyclopedias being the only sources of information. At any given moment, a student can look up the value of Avogadro's number or the height of the Eiffel Tower in centimeters. Students literally have information at their fingertips.
Although the knowledge of the teacher still has value, the teacher's role must shift from the imparter of information to a more crucial role. The teacher's job is to teach students how to persevere and think critically. Additionally, students should learn that they themselves, in collaboration with their classmates, know enough to accomplish any task. Students can serve as a great resource for other students, providing models and explaining material in a way they understand. When students are pushed to use their peers as a source of information, true collaboration begins.
Now that you are prepared to let go of your former ways of thinking, please know that students independently running a class will not casually happen overnight. Students must be trained through modeling, clear expectations, and practice. Here are two strategies to begin the process:
Warm-ups are a great place to begin student facilitation. Students do not actually need to know how to solve the question in order to be the student facilitator. The student leader can begin by asking a member of the class to read the question. A follow-up question can be something as simple as, "Does anyone have an idea on how to solve this problem?" It is also helpful if a list of potential questions is placed on the desk next to the projector to support facilitators.
Middle school students naturally love to argue. One strategy is to use this adolescent interest and to shift the culture of the classroom to be more student driven by allowing students to debate concepts. You can establish this culture shift by selecting two student volunteers with opposing views.
Be clear to establish the expectations of the debate. Only debaters are allowed to speak, taking turns and allowing individuals to finish speaking. If students in the audience wish to assist with the argument, they should raise their hand and wait for an original debater to select them for help.
After the first debate, the teacher should have students reflect on the experience. As students analyze what worked well and what needs to be improved, they are shaping the rules for the next debate. A teacher can help students during an argument by asking questions such as, "What previous question have we done in class together that will support your argument?" or "What pictorial model could you create to prove your answer?" These questions gently push students to justify their answer. The more practice students have debating, the more natural justification becomes.
Ultimately, the goal is for students to have ownership of their own learning. For teaching and learning to belong to students, teachers must first let it go.
Vanessa M. Gibson is an instructional lead teacher at James Madison Middle School, Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Published July 2018.