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Put students in charge of their learning

By Mark Barnes
August 21, 2014
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On a Monday morning at a junior high school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, a student teacher enters Room 120 for the first time. Looking to his left, he sees students discussing how to write an appropriate description of a picture they've just embedded in the online poster they've created for a project.

To the right sit two students engrossed in reading novels on handheld devices — one a Kindle, the other an iPod. Behind him sit three students huddled around laptops, whispering and pointing at one another's work.

After a few moments of peering over their shoulders, he asks what they are doing.

" "We're looking for articles related to our novels," " one of them says. " "We find something of interest related to a book we're reading. Then we bookmark it on Diigo and explain how the nonfiction article connects to our books." "

The student explains that Diigo is a tool that allows you to keep track of websites you like and annotate them for others to see.

Another student explains that he is using Goodreads, a social network for readers. He says he uses it to keep a record of the books he's read, rate them and share ratings with peers.

Noticing the student teacher's amazement, I explain that this class will likely be different from the high school classroom he visited previously.

This bustling, even chaotic, results-only learning environment (ROLE), where students work both independently and collaboratively on a variety of activities and projects, is unlike most classrooms just about anywhere.

In contrast to classrooms where cell phones and iPods are banned, students in Room 120 are encouraged to use mobile devices and social media sites.

After a couple weeks of working with students in our technology-rich workshop setting, the student teacher headed back to his high school assignment, assuring me he had much to consider. I had high hopes for this energetic newbie, because for two weeks, he'd experienced the elimination of outdated teaching methods in favor of a student-centered, technology-rich, results-only learning environment, and he was ready to share it with the world.

Replace tradition with digital learning

For much of my 20-year teaching career, I used the traditional teaching strategies that far too many teachers still employ today. Most are doing what they learned to do in their preservice days. Many are using only the tools that their school or district administrators provide — test practice workbooks, dusty texts and basal readers. The ROLE discards these resources and other practices that extract the fun from school. Gone are lectures, worksheets, rote-memory homework and multiple-choice tests. These are replaced with engaging, interactive mini-lessons and sophisticated digital learning tools.

Recent studies by the Pew Research Center indicate that 9 out of 10 teens use social networks, and most have a smartphone, iPod or e-reader. While many school administrators and teachers continue to ban the use of these remarkable digital learning tools, the results-only classroom embraces them.

Recall the anecdote shared earlier about the student teacher. Students worked independently and collaboratively using devices and social media to apply concepts and skills to ongoing projects to demonstrate mastery learning. Most exciting is how the students are able to teach the teacher about the tools. This is because they learned how to use a wide array of websites and devices throughout the year, and together we built a technology toolkit. By midyear, students in a ROLE are able to take guidelines for virtually any activity or project, go to their technology toolkit, and create engaging, interactive projects and presentations that show both their creativity and complex problem-solving skills.

Give a student a 20-problem math worksheet, a pencil and a calculator, and she'll develop a case of narcolepsy before your eyes. Give her a real-world scenario that requires application of the same skills, team her with a peer or two, ask them to use their tech toolkit to solve the problem, and you'll witness the electricity of a ROLE. Even elementary students can shoot videos of problem-solving activities using a mobile device. Then they can share the videos on an Edmodo class site; a blog; an online post-it wall, such as Padlet; or a virtual reality app, such as Aurasma.

The key to success in this progressive workshop setting is providing a choice of web tools and devices that students can use to demonstrate mastery without the teacher's vision of the work product getting in the way.

If 25 students have to complete the same worksheet, they rarely see value in this kind of activity. When a ROLE teacher says, " "Choose a topic, create an argument and persuade the class that you are right," " students are immediately engaged, because they've been given the autonomy that is so critical to learning.

Teachers become facilitators who offer mini-lessons on controlling arguments, persuasive hooks, types of appeal and a call to action. When students learn they can present their arguments using any web tool, engagement turns to excitement. Some might create brief movies with Animoto, while others debate their topic using the web-based discussion board Today'sMeet. SlideRocket, Glogster, Presenter, VoiceThread, Instagram and even Facebook are all possibilities for this kind of project.

Teaching in this environment looks different from the traditional classroom. A mini-lesson might consist of a series of brief videos on various types of persuasion. A discussion ensues on a message board or blog, where students can master the concepts with each other as the teacher chimes in when necessary. As the project work progresses, the teacher becomes more of a coach, circulating, answering questions about topics and persuasion techniques, and helping students apply each concept to a web tool or social media platform. This is digital age learning, and it's truly awe inspiring.

A new kind of evaluation

The cornerstone of the ROLE is the use of remarkably powerful narrative feedback. Web tools provide a virtual environment for this two-way communication between teacher and student that is of paramount importance to a successful digital age classroom. Websites, social media and mobile learning devices pave the way to the narrative feedback that drives mastery learning in the ROLE.

What's truly exciting about this kind of evaluation is students' willingness to improve their learning when they receive immediate, meaningful feedback on the digital tools they use.

When a student reviews narrative feedback directly where her work product is housed, it's easy to navigate to a prior lesson and instantly make the teacher's suggested changes. I often link video instruction, online presentations, bookmarked Diigo sites and other content to comments I leave on a student's digital work. Then he can open this link to instruction, review or reread it, and apply it back to the project without ever leaving his device.

In our amazing social networking world, I am automatically alerted via email or digital notification to any changes a student makes to a document or project. The power and immediacy of this kind of learning is undeniable. Students know they can make quick changes to activities and projects, and they want to do it because it's convenient and takes place in their world. Put a 50/100 score on a student's written work, and see how eager she is to return to prior learning and resubmit the activity.

Create curators of info

When I started teaching language arts more than two decades ago, a student portfolio represented a collection of work placed in a folder, which was ultimately put in a box in a storage room. If used as intended, the portfolio served as a vehicle for reflection on individual learning and growth over the course of an entire school year. Occasionally, these portfolios were shared with parents, but this was the extent of their usefulness. Maybe a handful of people saw each student's curated works. Most became nothing more than dust collectors that would eventually be discarded.

In 2006, when it became available worldwide, Facebook changed everything related to sharing information. Soon Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and a myriad of other social media networks created a cascade effect on how information is shared. Although education is seemingly light-years behind the rest of the world when it comes to online social networking and sharing, students in the ROLE are joining the public as the new curators of information. Recognizing the need to teach students how to efficiently curate what they find and what they create is fast becoming educators' greatest responsibility.

The internet is rife with digital libraries now being stocked by people of all ages and experiences. You don't have to be a professional writer anymore to publish your work. Free publishing sites, such as FastPencil, Kindle Direct Publishing, Storybird and Figment, supply an outlet for a young writer's poetry, prose, scientific essays, song lyrics or personal narratives. More important, these places give students a voice that pencil and paper can't provide.

Social networks create collaboration that can infuse thought-provoking dialogue into the classroom that many students would not otherwise participate in. This discussion can be maintained directly on that social network or on a wiki page or message board for others to view. A classroom blog offers a place where students can express themselves in continuing conversations while allowing peers in their school or from around the world to read their work. These social networks are creating curators of information, and educators must teach students just what this means, as they are becoming some of our most important content providers and managers. Today's students are curating literature and information that we will use, perhaps, for centuries to come.

This is the nature of the digital-age, student-centered ROLE. It is a place that emphasizes mastery learning through the use of any effective digital web tool or mobile learning device available. The ROLE is home to a new kind of teacher, who understands when it's time to get out of the way to create a collaborative, often chaotic workshop setting, where students ask and answer most of the questions. It's a place that is founded on narrative feedback that is housed in the digital tools each student uses.

This is a classroom, regardless of subject or grade, where students are independent learners eager to share their insights and skills. The ROLE is a place that builds lifelong learners because it is collaborative, digital, comfortable and engaging. Best of all, in the student-centered, results-only classroom, learning is fun.

Mark Barnes is a veteran teacher and author of Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom and The Five-Minute Teacher. Check out his video website, read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Ready to start developing student-centered lessons for your classroom? Collaborate with ISTE Standards experts and other educators in our new social learning community, Project ReimaginED.