Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 2. The Role of the Student

Image: Adam Hickmott /
This post is part two in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#2 We can transform the role of the student from Content Sponge to Content Creator.

I'm sure that we've all heard the adage that if you want to learn something really well, then teach it. I know that is true in my life. I really only solidify what I know when I take the time to mold what I know into a form that I can share with others. There are three things that I have to do, if I am going to teach something: I have to assess my own knowledge critically (to guard against "makin' stuff up"); I have to consider the path I've taken to come to this knowledge so that I can attempt to create a similarly useful path for others; and I have to "own" the knowledge so completely that I can speak from a position of authority.

The first act, assessing my own knowledge, involves critical thinking, evaluation, research, and in many cases, collaboration. The second act, involves problem-solving, organization, principles of design, analysis, communication, and interpersonal skills. The third act of "owning" knowledge requires metacognition, leadership skills and critical self-reflection.

Put that way, teaching sounds like a lot of work. I would argue, though, that most teachers would describe it as a lot of fun. The hard work of teaching is fun because it is engaging to our whole selves. How and what we teach is wrapped up in our emotions, our cognitive abilities and our physical selves. We love teaching the way we teach, because we love learning the way we learn. And as teachers, we have traditionally had at least some autonomy in the forms that teaching takes in our classrooms. In part, this helps to explain the slowness that characterizes the act of transforming the classroom. Those who succeed in traditional classrooms go on to teach in traditional classrooms, the story goes.

I contend, however, that the deep forms of learning that we do in our professional lives as teachers are exactly the deep forms of learning that our students need to be engaged in if we want them to love learning as much as we do. I hope we are not so selfish as a profession that we would choose to keep the best learning for ourselves.

My friend Jon Carl teaches a class he designed called "Feel the History" in which students create documentary films on local history for our area public television station. Jon spends very little time curating information and delivering it to kids. His classes are too busy doing the work themselves. He doesn't have time to teach them history because he is teaching them to be historians. And his kids obviously know the joys of teaching a whole community about itself.

So, I hope you will accept this challenge. Ask yourself with every unit or lesson you design, will your students have the deep pleasure of mastering the content and skills that you teach on their own terms and be challenged to share their learning beyond themselves, or will you simply ask them to reflect your learning back to you?