Wednesday, December 7, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 7. The Nature of Classroom Content

Image: Master isolated images /
This post is part seven 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.

#7- We Can Transform the nature of classroom content from Standardized to Individualized.

I've been thinking a lot about the learning that has mattered in my life and what distinguishes it from the learning that hasn't mattered. I want to get at what characterizes valuable learning. Here are the indicators that I have come up with:

  1. I chose the learning (or chose to "tune in" to the learning).
  2. I had an emotional response to the learning.
  3. I used the learning to a purpose.
  4. I owned the learning as an equal participant in a social context.
  5. I built new learning in relationship to the learning.
  6. I was able to (and often felt compelled to) share the learning with others.
I wonder how many learning experiences that I have designed for students meet those criteria? By their very nature, such experiences are highly personal and dependent on who I am as a learner.

By contrast, many of the experiences that students have on a daily basis at school are utterly forgettable because they have been standardized to be applied to all learners. How many of our lessons 
  1. define and even micro-manage learning for students? 
  2. are designed to avoid hard topics and emotional responses?
  3. fail to have real-world implications or authentic audiences?
  4. don't encourage our students to question each other or to question authority?
  5. fail to be so essential that they lead to independent learning?
  6. never make it onto a student's Twitter feed, YouTube channel, or blog post?
Indeed, our entire educational system is built to minimize student choice about how and what they learn, how they demonstrate mastery, and what learning is valued. Learning in the school setting is often served up one way, with little acknowledgement of how truly personal it is.

I believe we can make learning personally relevant to students. Here are some ideas:
  1. We need to really know our students as individuals. They need to know that they are each important to us and that, by extension, what they learn is important to us.
  2. We need to challenge kids to bring their personalities, interests and talents to the learning they do in our class. We need to celebrate what makes kids unique as learners.
  3. We need to create a civil and gracious social context in our classrooms in which everyone is empowered to speak their mind and test their ideas.
  4. We need to view learning as a process that allows for mistakes, false starts, and growth.
  5. We need to create learning challenges that allow for student autonomy in terms of how a task is completed and how mastery is demonstrated.
  6. We need to create learning challenges that include real work to a real purpose for real audiences, and that create a sense of ownership for their efforts.
  7. We need to create learning experiences that make kids feel proud, important, and amazed at themselves. We also need to maximize other positive emotions like humor and joy.
  8. We need to let go of anything that will result in 30 students turning in the exact same product as every other student, or that isn't tailored to challenge each child where he or she is.
  9. We need to re-examine content delivery so that whole-group direct instruction is the exception, rather than the rule, so that we are spending more time talking with each student individually about his or her learning.
  10. We need to define our content standards not on what every child needs,  but on what each child needs.
The point is that I remember the classes, lessons and teachers that made room for me to learn on my own terms, to explore, to change my mind, to be enthusiastic and to be distracted, to exercise my passions and talents, and to be the goofy kid I was. I got A's in those classes. The others? Not so much.

We owe it to kids to let them love learning by honoring the fact that their learning is their own.

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