Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

At the heart of my classroom? Student agency and continuous renewal

Riley Lark asks, ‘What’s at the heart of your classroom? At the heart of mine are the concepts of student agency and continuous reflection, revision, and renewal.

I teach graduate students: adult teachers and administrators who want a principal or superintendent credential. I’ve always prided myself on being a student-centered instructor. I include my teaching philosophy in every syllabus:

With deference to all of the educational authors whom I may paraphrase, I believe that

  • The teaching-learning process is primarily for the benefit of the learner, not the teacher. 
  • All students want to, can, and will learn given the proper learning environment.
  • Students actively and individually make sense of what they learn by connecting and integrating it with what they already understand. Teaching cannot occur without learning. I should always seek and value students’ points of view in order to understand students’ thought processes and knowledge acquisition.
  • My ultimate responsibility as a teacher is to create a learning environment that facilitates learning for every student. My ultimate goal is to make each class the best learning experience students have ever had.
  • In each and every class, I actively solicit student feedback and do my best to structure the course around student-identified needs and interests.

    But sometimes that works better than others. Even though my teaching evaluations tend toward the high end, there still are times when I and/or my students struggle. Occasionally that’s due to non-course factors that arise in our personal and professional lives. But often it has to do with the decisions that I make as an instructor. In particular, the less structured I am – and the more I put on my students’ shoulders in terms of direction-setting, resource-gathering, and other ownership aspects of their learning – often the more painful the learning-teaching process.

    My wholly-online data-driven decision-making (DDDM) class this semester is a good example. We started with a few key background readings and two surveys: a self-rating of their school organization against best practices and a survey of their own personal knowledge of and interest in various DDDM topics. I quickly analyzed those so that we had some baseline data from which to work. I then asked them, “based on the data we have before us, what should we focus on?” I also created areas where they could ask more specific questions (e.g., “what questions do you have about [formative assessment, professional learning communities, DDDM technologies]?). I wish I could say that all of my students stepped up and started firing out questions and suggestions based on their own needs and interests. But they didn’t. Only some did.

    Then I gave them what I thought was a fairly straightforward task for adult learners: for our class wiki (which is organized by various DDDM subtopics), find good DDDM-related resources, extract the big ideas from those that help us organize and think about our local DDDM work, and also identify practical tips and techniques that we can use in our schools as we implement this stuff. I seeded some of the wiki pages so that my students could see what I meant by ‘big ideas’ versus ‘practical tips’ (because I believe that models are important and helpful). I also started posting links to additional resources that they could use to inform themselves further/deeper (and from which they could pull out big ideas and practical tips). Then I sat back to see what they would do. Again, I wish I could say that all of my student stepped up and started finding resources and adding their learning to the wiki. But they didn’t. Only some did. So now, with just a few weeks left, we’re not where I’d hoped we would be and we’re running out of time.

    The point of all of this is NOT to indict my summer students. Rather it’s to emphasize the truism that learning tasks that work for some groups of students don’t always work as well or as intended with others. Effective teaching is a constant reexamination of one’s actions and beliefs and modification of one’s practices and pedagogies to the students that we have before us right now. Thus the importance of continuous reflection, revision, and renewal.

    Why isn’t my summer class going as well as I’d like? Most likely it’s me. I’m fond of quoting Seth Godin: ‘If your target audience isn’t listening, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.‘ So I didn’t provide enough guidance or structure up front, or I didn’t get a good enough handle on my students’ capacities before we began something fairly wide open, or whatever. It’s my job to diagnose, revise accordingly, and see what I can do to get us back on track [and it’s their job too].

    I do know that I don’t want to spoon feed them the material. I could do that. I could lay out a time-sequenced series of structured readings and webinars, online discussions, and other learning tasks. It would be easier for me and probably them too. But I believe in my heart that we learn best by doing, we learn best by creating, we learn best when we personalize our own learning, and we learn best by collaborating. But just because I believe this does not mean that my students – even though they’re adult educators in charge of doing this for children and adolescents – are ready to do this themselves, at least not without more help from me.

    So back we go to figure it out. We’ll make it work somehow. And along the way we’ll all learn about ourselves as both instructors and learners. Wish us luck.

    Image credit:Catching up on e-mail…


    Up Next