How to Rethink the Roles of Students and Teachers for Modern Schools

What does it look like to be a student in a classroom that is student-centered and student-driven? What does it look like to be a teacher in such a classroom?

These questions were among many that emerged in GOA’s most recent educator course, Rethinking the Roles of Students and Teachers. The course featured panels of students from GOA member schools Germantown Friends School and West Point Grey Academy. Each panelist deeply reflected on their relationship with school, what being a student meant to them, and their most and least impactful learning experiences.

The students expressed a desire for greater autonomy and for recognition from teachers that students contribute to the exchange of knowledge. Educators in the course held a spirited debate about the role of the teacher in such an environment. Below, we highlight the key shifts that need to take place in the roles of students and teachers in modern schools.

How the Role of Student Must Shift

1. From Rudderless Box Checker to Purposeful Learner

“School became about success more than learning for its own sake. The exploration part took a back seat the first couple of years of high school. It became about getting to college.” -Chloe, Germantown Friends School

“[Rowing] was a different experience...the way that our coaches coach us is that they help us understand why we row and who we are doing it for. I think having a purpose helps me understand why I’m doing something and pushes me to do something to the best of my ability.” -Megan, Germantown Friends School

Many schools are experiencing an epidemic of students as rudderless box checkers, where students are on a relentless pursuit of achieving for the sake of achieving. The pressure of college admission has rendered many students aimless, excellent sheep with high rates of stress and anxiety. Yet, there is clear evidence that colleges, even the most prestigious, don’t want sheep; they want real people with real passions.

Our student panelists said achievement for the sake of achievement is an insufficient way of keeping students engaged and motivated to learn. Research from the psychologist David Yeager indicates that a purposeful mindset and a disposition towards engaging in some kind of social good beyond self-interest have a marked impact on student learning. Engaging in a more intentional search for purpose through exercises like the 5 Why’s protocol may help students find their rudders, and thus their motivation.

2. From Passive Learner to Knowledge Seeker

“There are some students who genuinely like to learn from a textbook. But, it would be accurate to say that most students in our generation enjoy learning in unconventional ways, through experiences. We like to have some kind of control in the direction, where we get to play a role in what we’re learning about.” -Alison, West Point Grey Academy

“I want to engage. I want to have conversations. I love learning through experiences. We want to have our thoughts and ideas be heard.” -Evie, West Point Grey Academy

The student panelists valued the freedom to choose. Whether it was the freedom to take courses that weren’t prescribed or the opportunity to engage in a self-directed deep inquiry project, students were able to tap into intrinsic motivation and engage in deeper learning by virtue of having the ability to make choices.

Playing an active role in seeking knowledge can be a daunting prospect. Students admitted that, at first, participating in their school symposium and the GOA Catalyst Conference were jarring experiences that made them question whether or not their teachers were actually teaching them. However, the experience of having to struggle to design their own capstone projects helped them “dig deeper” and “figure out what they struggled with.” The jarring experience transformed into an empowering one.

How the Role of Teacher Must Shift

1. From Classroom Leader to Coach

“A question I have is how to help students choose work that best helps them learn, which is often not the work that is quickest/easiest for them. How do I balance pushing students to do things they wouldn't otherwise choose to do vs. letting them choose things they enjoy more but that might not push them to develop new skills and habits?” -Laura Twichell, Concord Academy

A recent Hechinger Report article indicated that personalized learning can increase achievement gaps. Deleterious effects can emerge when choice becomes a way for students to lean on the skills and habits they’ve already mastered. As Juliana Finegan, managing partner at The Learning Accelerator, notes, student choice doesn’t equate to letting students bow out of assignments that make them uncomfortable, like group work that requires collaboration with their peers. Doing so is antithetical to the very idea of teaching and learning.

Instead, where the element of choice needs to come into play is teachers working in conjunction with students to identify which skills need development and then allowing the student to choose what they’re going to work on. The role of the teacher very much becomes a coach who holds students accountable in pushing themselves in the areas in which they need to grow.

2. From Content Expert to Content Facilitator

“I was struck by the image of us teachers being a bridge rather than a ferry, with the students being the drivers in a car. Cars on a ferry are carried from one river bank to the other; but the drivers are really stuck. On a bridge drivers are given a direction, perhaps also a speed limit, etc. However, the students are the drivers. And they are responsible to get from one bank to the other, with an unlimited number of destinations on the other side of the river.” (Franz Gruber, Columbus Academy)

Teachers in student-centered, student-driven classrooms can feel a threat to their identity as content experts. However, the student panelists made it clear that they need to lean on teachers for their content expertise, even in student-centered experiences. Students are interested in content and are inspired by their teachers’ passion for their subject areas. However, teachers should step back and give students the opportunity to engage in deep inquiry by curating a menu of options and then gradually allowing students to determine the points at which they want to dig deeper.

What are some of the ways your school is rethinking the roles of both students and teachers? Let us know by talking with us on Twitter at @GOAlearning. Interested in learning more about the ways in which GOA is rethinking the roles of students and teachers? Check out our Competency-Based Learning Toolkit.

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