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How student-centered learning is delivering on its promises

By Nicole Krueger
December 15, 2017
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Last year, a group of high school students wondered what it would take to govern a country. So they organized. They wrote a constitution. They set up an economy. And they ran their mock government outside of class all year long.

The project wasn’t graded, and they didn’t get extra credit for it. They did it purely to satisfy their own curiosity. 

“This is the kind of project we see coming out of our content courses,” says Nicole Cerra, director of learning for Design Tech High School, a Burlingame, California, charter school focused on design thinking and student-driven learning. “It’s a lot different than just doing the reading and taking the test.”

Schools like Design Tech High are pioneering a new approach to education. They’re leveraging technology to create spaces where personalized, student-centered and project-based learning intersect – where students are handed the reins of their own learning and allowed to follow where their curiosity and creativity lead them.

They’ve cast off the old “sage on the stage” model for one that empowers students to take ownership of their education.

“We’re changing the culture of how teachers teach and how kids learn,” says Bart Rocco, superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District in rural Pennsylvania, who has spent most of the past decade leading a districtwide transformation toward a student-centered environment. “If I teach somebody to do something, it’s not theirs to learn.”

When students own their learning, it becomes more powerful than if they simply receive it. That’s why for educators like Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, student-driven learning isn’t a lofty ideal. It’s a moral imperative.

“We have a fundamental human right to agency,” he says. “It’s no more or less than that. If we want kids to be comfortable being active and engaged citizens of our world – and we need that pretty badly right now – we have a moral obligation to help them unlock that agency as early as we can.” 

Student agency, in fact, is a key component of the ISTE Standards for Students. Standard 1, Empowered Learner, expects student to “leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.”

The standards also call on students to set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process to improve outcomes. In addition, they are asked to build networks, customize their learning environments and seek feedback to improve practice. 

U.S. News & World Report has called student-centered learning environments “the schools of the future,” and in many ways, these forward-thinking educators are conducting a revolutionary learning experiment for the rest of the education community. What really happens when we let students take the lead? How does it affect their performance? Does student-driven learning deliver on its promises?

With most of these learning environments less than a decade old, the experiment is still in its infancy. Educators are still learning from their mistakes, reiterating and tweaking the formula. But proponents of student-driven learning have seen enough to convince them they’re on the right track.
By almost any measure, from test scores to graduation rates, these next-generation schools are already outperforming their neighbors, Lehmann says.
“There are enough examples out there now that you have to work hard to say that this stuff doesn’t work.”

Student-driven learning in action

Just as no two students learn in exactly the same way, no two student-driven classrooms look exactly alike. Each school has its own unique approach.
“Student-driven classrooms can manifest in a lot of different ways,” Lehmann says. “What it doesn’t look like is kids doing a lab where there’s a predetermined outcome.”

At Holy Family Academy, a student-centered Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the majority of students are from underserved populations, students use each academic subject as a lens for exploring the social justice issues that affect their communities. And when they hit upon a problem they’re passionate about, they’re encouraged to leverage technology to solve it. They’ve used their school’s fab lab to make blessing boxes and place them outside local homeless shelters. One student programmed an app to help redistribute food to local families in need.

“Instead of shying away from topics that are controversial, we want our students to be part of the change and have the confidence to speak out in the face of injustice,” says Lisa Abel-Palmieri, head of school and chief learning officer. “They could read about it in book, or we can give students space and time to create a program or project.”

Students at Science Leadership Academy spend a lot of time developing their inquiry skills. They learn how to ask powerful questions and then create artifacts based on the answers they discover. Those at Design Tech High apply their design thinking skills to real-world projects, such as redesigning the entryway for their local library. 

In most of these schools, technology serves as the vehicle for student-driven learning. It’s the link that connects their learning to the world outside. Students create and share artifacts on 1:1 tablets or laptops, using the media of their choice. They also design and build their creations in high-tech maker spaces equipped with 3D printers and CAD software.

One of the most important hallmarks of a student-driven learning environment, however, is that students walk into the classroom knowing in their bones that they matter, says Angela Maiers, founder of the Genius Hour and Choose2Matter movements.

“Empowerment is not something you can assign or hand down to somebody,” she says. “It’s something you have to invite. You have to orchestrate conditions where students believe they matter and the work they’re doing matters to an audience. Kids need voice and choice, I agree, but when you look at what empowerment truly means, it goes much farther than just giving kids choice. It gets down to the DNA of a school’s culture and character.”

Unlocking student agency

The benefits of student-driven learning may be palpable, but there’s no denying it’s a huge departure from what most students are used to. When incoming freshmen enter Design Tech High, many are confused about what’s expected of them. They sit down at their desks and wait for teachers to tell them what to do.

When they realize they’re expected to direct their own learning, “for the most part they’re really thrilled by it, but it’s also big ask of them,” Cerra says. Within a traditional learning model, “they’re comfortable and they understand the expectations. When the expectation is to solve a problem and they don’t have a road map to get there, that risk-taking is uncomfortable for them.”
Just like with reading or math, kids are all over the spectrum in terms of their ability to be self-directed. Sometimes they make poor choices. Some days they’re just not that motivated.

Many educators see it as a sign that today’s students aren’t ready to take ownership of their learning. But Lehmann passionately rejects that claim.
“I think everybody’s ready to take control of their own learning,” he says. “What’s the alternative? The alternative is that we don’t trust children. Or that learning isn’t for them. The general assumption has to be that kids are ready to take the reins of their own learning, because it’s theirs.”

It turns out self-directed learning is a skill like any other. Students need to be taught how to function in a self-directed learning environment – and schools need support structures to keep them on track. Learning needs to be scaffolded. Teachers need to be ready to intervene immediately when they see students making poor choices.

“The misunderstanding around self-directed learning is that it doesn’t involve teachers making thoughtful choices about how to support kids,” says Adam Carter, chief academic officer for Summit Public Schools, whose campuses throughout California and Washington are structured around personalized learning.

“We have to instill in learners the ability to grow the skills, mindsets, behaviors and dispositions to be able to direct their own learning. There’s a lot of scaffolding and intervention that occurs on way to getting to that point. Like any muscle, it’s the product of a lot of time and attention. It’s not like flipping a switch.”

At Design Tech High, students check in with an adviser once a week to help them focus their self-directed lab time, with self-direction coaches ready to step in when they need more intensive support.

Holy Family Academy created a full-length core class for freshmen that teaches them how to learn in a student-driven environment.

“It’s taken a lot of trial and error to figure out what level of support students need,” Abel-Palmieri says. “Once they get it, they figure out how amazing it is.”
The real question, Lehmann says, isn’t whether students are ready to direct their own learning. It’s whether students are truly being served by traditional modes of education.

“I think kids are more ready for this than they are for what we currently serve them,” he says. “Better this than sitting and listening to someone lecturing you all day long. I don’t know anyone who’s ready for that.”

Helping teachers make the shift

Make no mistake: These educators aren’t wearing rose-tinted glasses when they talk about student-centered learning. They’re on the front lines of the revolution, and they’re the first to admit it’s harder than the current way of doing school.

“You have a whole new set of skills to teach kids, as well as a redefined role for yourself,” Carter says. “Learning anything new requires an investment of time. It’s unfair and impractical to say to a teacher that self-directed learning is the cure for all that ails you. It’s not true. You can work just as hard in a self-directed learning environment. But you’re also going to see results in the kids’ learning. It’s not easier, but it’s much more effective.”

Student-driven learning requires teachers  to profoundly rethink pedagogy. One of the biggest challenges for teachers is simply making the mindset shift.
“This is a radically different approach to thinking about what learning in schools looks like,” Lehmann says. 

To support teachers through the transition, schools need to provide plenty of professional learning so they can develop the new skill sets required to help students direct their own learning. At Design Tech High, for example, teachers get eight weeks’ worth of half-days for training while students take elective classes taught by industry professionals. 

Because early intervention is so crucial, teachers need to be able to easily spot when students are struggling – and to do that, they need data. Summit schools use a personalized learning platform that collects information through assessments designed to draw out key performance indicators. For example, did the student look at learning resources before taking the assessment? Did they submit formative work before turning in a final draft? 

By examining these types of learning behaviors, the platform can pinpoint students who are less likely to succeed.

“In version one of personalized learning, which is what we’re just now emerging from, we have a tremendous amount of information about the product, process and progress of student learning,” Carter says. “We’ve tried to package that information to teachers, administrators and coaches into clear, easy-to-use dashboards.”

As teachers become more responsive to this type of data, they end up re-envisioning their role as curriculum adapters rather than curriculum developers. Instead of creating new course content, they find themselves spending the bulk of their time adapting existing materials to students’ needs. This requires extra time for planning lessons, collaborating with colleagues and talking through their challenges. 

That’s why Holy Family Academy designed its schedule to allow ample prep time, requiring students to participate in off-campus internships so teachers can spend a solid eight hours a week on planning.

“Making the transition is a lot of work,” Cerra says. “Setting things up so students can take ownership of their learning requires a lot of thought. For the first couple years it’s almost like being a brand-new teacher again.” 

Assessing the intangible

One day, a student walked into Elizabeth Forward High School with an idea. He wanted to build a canoe. He spent hours in the school’s fab lab digitally fabricating the vessel, eventually testing it in the swimming pool to see if it would float. It did.

It was a huge moment for a student who felt like he never really fit in at school, Rocco recalls.

Those are the kinds of transformative experiences student-driven learning can enable. Unfortunately, “they’re not captured in reductionist assessments,” Cerra says, leading many educators to struggle with questions around how to assess self-directed learning. Is it rigorous enough? Will it show up on tests?
“Those who do the work know its 100 percent rigorous, but how do you assess it?” Abel-Palmieri says. “Unfortunately, we still have most universities and lot of parents who think rigor is a score on the ACT or SAT or a multiple-choice test at end of the semester.”

To truly measure the success of student-driven learning, educators need to radically rethink assessments. Maiers, for example, is working with Ph.D. students from the University of Georgia and the University of Denver to create the first algorithm for evaluating how much a person understands their own potential and significance. Known as the mattering quotient (MQ), it has the potential to help students combat the feelings of insignificance that often go hand in hand with poor academic performance.

“Our biggest desire beyond food, water and shelter is our desire to matter,” she says. “This has the potential to do what emotional intelligence (EQ) did 30 years ago.”

Even if technology can’t yet quantify the true value of student-driven learning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

“It’s the harder choice, not the easier choice, for educators to make,” Carter says. “But it’s ultimately the right choice because it’s about treating kids as individuals.”

Nicole krueger is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. She writes about education technology and the transformation of learning.